Early signs and symptoms of HIV can be mild – you might not even realize you have it. That’s why regular testing is so important.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the immune system and can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if left untreated.
There’s no cure for HIV, but there are steps you can take to control the infection and reduce your risk of exposing others to the virus.
“Know the early signs and symptoms of HIV, especially if you think you’ve been exposed, and get tested,” says Darrell McBride, DO, infectious diseases specialist at Geisinger.
How is HIV transmitted?
HIV is transmitted through contact with certain bodily fluids, such as blood, semen and vaginal secretions, most commonly through unprotected sexual activity. It can also be spread through sharing needles for injecting drugs or getting a tattoo. A parent with HIV can transmit the virus to their child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
However, notes Dr. McBride, “HIV is not transmitted through bodily fluids like saliva, tears or sweat.”
Early signs and symptoms of HIV
Early symptoms of HIV infection differ from person to person, and in some cases may not appear at all. Generally, early HIV symptoms resemble those of other illnesses such as flu or mononucleosis and can range from mild to severe within two to four weeks of exposure.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Skin rash or lesions
- Muscle aches
- Night sweats
- Nausea and vomiting
“Remember, these symptoms can also be caused by other medical conditions, so get tested if you think you’ve been exposed,” says Dr. McBride.
It may take up to three months after exposure before HIV can be detected in your blood. During this time, it’s possible to spread the virus without knowing you’re infected. Having regular testing for HIV helps catch infections early on, when they are most treatable.
Symptoms of advanced HIV infection
Left untreated, HIV can damage your immune system, making infections more difficult to fight. Advanced HIV infection can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Weight loss
Other common symptoms of advanced HIV infection include chronic diarrhea and night sweats. Shingles can also result from HIV progression.
Advanced HIV infection may even affect the brain, leading to short-term memory loss or confusion. People living with advanced HIV are more likely to develop other infections, such as tuberculosis or cytomegalovirus, which can further weaken their immune system.
Without treatment, the virus usually progresses to AIDS in eight to 10 years.
Regularly monitoring your health if you have HIV will help you detect any signs that your condition is advancing quickly. As with many illnesses, early detection is key to managing HIV. Timely treatment can slow its progression and reduce long-term health risks.
Testing for HIV
Testing for HIV is a simple process that can identify infection early on, allowing you to get prompt treatment and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to someone else. There are several types of tests, each with its own pros and cons.
- The most common type is the rapid HIV test, which uses a finger prick blood sample and gives you results in just 20 minutes. This method is ideal if you need quick results or you don’t have access to a traditional lab-based test. However, this test may not be as accurate as other methods.
- The traditional HIV antibody test requires your blood sample to be sent to a laboratory for testing. It typically takes a day or two for the results, but is considered more reliable than the rapid test.
- The fourth-generation HIV antigen/antibody combination tests look for antibodies specific to the virus, as well as antigens produced by the virus itself. They’re typically more expensive, but provide an earlier diagnosis than other types of tests since they detect both components of the virus at once.
“No matter what type of test you choose, talk to your doctor about testing options before deciding what's best for you,” says Dr. McBride.
Reducing your risk of HIV
You can reduce your risk of transmission if you engage in any activity that may put you in contact with body fluids from someone living with HIV.
Some ways to reduce your risk:
- Use condoms or dental dams when having sex
- If you don’t have HIV, consider pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)
- Don’t share needles or syringes
- Start HIV therapy if you are positive and pregnant
- Don’t breastfeed if you’re HIV positive
- If you think you’ve been exposed, consider PrEP
While there’s no cure for HIV, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help you manage symptoms and reduce the risk of further transmission. ART involves taking one or more medications daily to suppress the virus and keep it from multiplying in your body. With a reduced amount of active virus in your body, your immune system can recover over time.
It bears repeating: Testing is key. Knowing whether you have the virus means you know whether to focus on treatment or prevention.
“If you may be at risk of contracting HIV, get tested regularly — because early detection can significantly improve your outcomes,” says Dr. McBride.