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What are the early symptoms of HIV?

Learn about the early symptoms of HIV, HIV testing and the causes of HIV.

Rashes are common early symptoms of HIV infection. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Rashes are common early symptoms of HIV infection.

Since the first identified cases in the early 1980s, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has become one of the most studied, debated and controversial diseases in the medical community. While public awareness programs, education efforts and improved treatment have helped control the spread of HIV in the United States, it is an increasing problem in other parts of the world. According to the Mayo Clinic, around 38 million people are living with HIV worldwide.

HIV Transmission

Because of the nature of the HIV virus, early symptoms may be minor or nonexistent. HIV is spread from mother to baby during childbirth, through blood transfusions, shared needles or sexual contact. It is not airborne, nor can it be transmitted by touching somebody who has the virus. 

Once HIV enters the body, it resides in the lymph nodes, slowly replicating over a period of up to 10 years. During this incubation period, the virus begins attacking the body’s T cells --white blood cells -- which act as managers for the entire immune system. Eventually, these T cells are rendered helpless, paralyzing the immune system and leaving the body open to illness and infection from all directions. In fact, people don’t die from HIV, or the subsequent development of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) -- they die from the illnesses (often pneumonia or tuberculosis) that infect the body due to the weakened immune system.

Early Symptoms of HIV

The full-blown effects of HIV might take up to a decade to manifest. In the meantime, many people aren’t even aware that they have the virus, especially if no symptoms are present. However, there are some early symptoms of HIV that may indicate infection. 

Early symptoms of HIV include flu-like symptoms that may occur about 2 to 6 weeks after infection. These symptoms may include a fever, headache, swollen lymph glands, sore throat and a rash. However, these symptoms often go away rather quickly and may be attributed to a bout with the flu. It’s important to keep in mind that these symptoms are in fact associated with a multitude of illnesses; sometimes a flu is just a flu. A blood test is the only accurate way to determine HIV infection.

Early Symptomatic HIV

As the HIV virus develops, it moves from the phase known as asymptomatic HIV to early symptomatic HIV. At this stage, more symptoms will occur, but the virus has not yet developed into full-blown AIDS. 

Some of the signs of early symptomatic HIV include night sweats, diarrhea, high fever, stiff muscles and headaches. Additionally, infections associated with yeast, such as frequent vaginal yeast infections, can be symptomatic of the virus. Other early symptoms of HIV affect the mouth, such as oral thrush or canker sores, as well as gingivitis. Some HIV patients may experience recurring shingles or other herpes zoster infections. 

With the improved treatment for the disease, early symptoms of HIV don’t have to be a death knell. With the use of antiretroviral drugs, HIV patients are living longer, more fruitful lives than ever before. However, early diagnosis and treatment is vital to maximizing the chance of treating the disease. If you believe you’ve been exposed to HIV, or are suffering from any of the early symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible.

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