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A picture of the molecules of HIV.

What are the Early Symptoms of HIV?

Knowing the Early Symptoms of HIV

The thought of having HIV is devastating. Whether you have an HIV diagnosis or suspect you might receive one due to early symptoms of HIV, know that HIV does not make you less of a person. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. 1.1 million people in the US are living with HIV. About 15% of them do not know they are HIV positive.

HIV is not the same as AIDS (acquired Immunodeficiency syndrome). HIV is what causes AIDS, although it takes several years for AIDS to develop. This article will explain HIV and its first symptoms so you can take action to help yourself or someone you know.

How HIV Works

HIV infections most often occur due to unprotected sexual intercourse, especially anal sex between an HIV positive man and HIV negative man. Another common cause of HIV infections is direct contact with the blood stream through needle injection of illegal drugs.

HIV cannot reproduce on its own, so it takes over white blood cells in the immune system used by the human body to fight infections. By taking over white blood cells, HIV is able to multiply itself like a regular cell without causing any noticeable symptoms.

Someone can have HIV for five, 10, or even 20 years with no symptoms. During that time, your white blood cells will decrease, diminishing your ability to fight off common infections. With untreated HIV, common colds last longer. You have more sick days than other people. You risk passing on HIV to others.

The good news is people with HIV who receive treatment early enough are able to live as long as people without HIV. With consistent treatment, the risk of spreading HIV from an infected person to a non-infected person is basically zero.

Acute HIV Symptoms

HIV has three stages. The first stage is acute HIV, where acute symptoms occur.

You may not have any acute symptoms, yet another person could have them all. The symptoms you have depend on your body’s health. You may have symptoms so mild you do not notice them.

40% to 90% of people experience acute symptoms within the first two to four weeks of HIV infection. Symptoms can last up to 12 weeks in some cases.

Symptoms Similar to the Flu

These include a fever, headaches, sore throat, muscle aches, vomiting, dry cough and fatigue. Flu symptoms are usually the first symptoms of HIV.
These symptoms occur as a result of your immune system fighting HIV and can occur when fighting any other infection as well. For example, while a fever does make you feel bad, it also deactivates viruses.

Later Symptoms

After about the second week of having HIV, your lymph nodes will become swollen and expand. This is because your body is fighting the HIV infection and attempting to restrict the infection in your lymph nodes. You have lymph nodes all over your body, from head to toe. HIV most often affects the lymph nodes in the neck, groin, or armpits.

A few days after having a fever, you might get a rash for up to eight days. You might also feel fatigued day and night.

Additional Acute HIV Symptoms:

  • Chills
  • Rash
  • Night sweats
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Diarrhea

Getting an Early HIV Diagnosis

An early HIV diagnosis will put an end to your anxiety of not knowing and reduces the risk of you unknowingly infecting someone. Acute HIV symptoms are too generic to be identified as HIV. In most cases, you will have to wait one month after possible exposure to HIV before you test for it. The only way you can know if you have HIV is by getting a lab test. HIV tests you can take at home might give you a false positive.

If you do test positive for HIV after testing, you will need to take a follow up test to make sure your previous test result was not a false positive. Likewise, if you test negative you will need to take a follow up test to make sure you did not get a false negative.

You do not have to pay out of pocket for HIV testing in many countries thanks to non-profits and government healthcare facilities. If you have had a potentially risky HIV encounter, make sure you get tested.

When to See a Doctor

You should go see a doctor anytime you have a high risk HIV encounter or start experiencing the symptoms of acute HIV.

Here are all high risk HIV encounters, ranked from highest to lowest risk according to the CDC:

  • Blood transfusion. If you receive blood from an HIV positive individual, there is a 92% chance you will get HIV. In places with modern medical practices it almost never occurs. HIV infection through blood transfusion has only occurred once since 2002 in the USA.
  • Receptive anal sex. If you are the receiver of anal sex with an HIV positive person, you have a 0.0138% chance of being infected with HIV. This is why homosexual men are most likely to get HIV. (The person giving anal sex has a 0.0011% chance of being infected with HIV if having sex with an HIV positive individual.)
  • Sharing needles for drug use. If you share injectable needles with an HIV positive person, you have a 0.0063% chance of being infected with HIV.
  • Needle puncture. When a needle carrying HIV punctures the skin of an uninfected person, there is a 0.0023% chance of infection occurring. This is usually how health care workers get infected with HIV.
  • Receptive vaginal sex. Women have a 0.0008% chance of getting HIV if they have vaginal sex with a man who has HIV. An HIV negative man has half as much a chance of getting HIV if he has vaginal sex with an HIV positive woman.

These percentages seem small, but they are based on each encounter. The more high risk encounters you have, the higher the percentages rise.
If the person you are having sex with has sexually transmitted diseases in addition to HIV, the odds of an HIV infection occurring increase. The odds also increase if an individual with acute HIV or AIDS is involved.

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