The early signs of an HIV infection can mimic the symptoms of the flu. These symptoms occur during a stage known as acute HIV. It’s difficult to accurately diagnose HIV during this stage. If you’re experiencing concerning symptoms or you believe you may have been exposed to HIV, it’s important to understand the early signs of this condition so you can take the appropriate actions.
The Stages of HIV
Acute HIV, also known as acute retroviral syndrome or primary HIV infection, is the first stage of HIV. This occurs roughly two to four weeks in some people after contracting the virus and lasts until the body creates HIV antibodies. This is when you’ll notice early signs of infection.
After the acute stage has passed, patients experience stage two, known as clinical latency, asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV. During this stage, there are often no symptoms. Clinical latency can last for a decade or more even in individuals who aren’t seeking treatment. Those who take antiretroviral therapy (ART) daily are more likely to stay in stage two.
Stage three of HIV is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The is the most severe stage of HIV. By this time, the patient’s CD4 cell count is low and viruses have begun to build up in the body. Opportunistic illnesses will occur often causing symptoms like fever, weakness, weight loss, sweats, and swollen lymph glands.
Symptoms of Acute HIV
It’s best to diagnose HIV early so you can begin taking ART as soon as possible and delay the onset of AIDS. As previously mentioned, acute HIV often looks like the flu. Symptoms to keep an eye out for include:
- Ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals.
- Swollen lymph nodes.
- Thrush, which is an infection of the mouth.
- Sore throat.
- Night sweats.
- Joint or muscle pain.
Most of these symptoms last from a few days to a few weeks and typically stick around longer than the standard flu. In all, these symptoms are experienced by 40% to 90% of people within the first four weeks after infection.
HIV Testing With Early Symptoms
Because these symptoms are all associated with other types of illnesses and conditions, experiencing them doesn’t mean you have HIV. Additionally, some people don’t show any symptoms of HIV for up to 10 years after infection.
If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, the only way to know your status for certain is to get tested. That way, if you determine that you do have HIV, you can begin treatment to slow the progression of the virus. The earlier you start treatment, the more successful it generally is at preventing the virus from progressing and at protecting your partners from infection.
During the first stage of HIV, the body hasn’t yet created HIV antibodies, which is what many HIV tests look for. Someone recently infected with HIV may test negative for the virus using certain testing methods. If you believe you’ve recently been exposed to HIV, it’s important to communicate this to your local health care provider so you can get the right test to diagnose your symptoms.
Infection Risk with Acute HIV
The risk of transmission is much higher with acute HIV than with HIV in the second stage. It’s estimated that as many as half of all HIV infections occur when patients are in the acute stage and don’t yet know that they have the virus. Transmission rates are 7.25 times higher during the acute stage than in chronic HIV.
It’s easier to transmit HIV in the acute stage because the blood has high levels of the virus but no antibodies. If you’re experiencing symptoms associated with acute HIV, it’s best to refrain from unprotected sex until you get tested and receive the results from your provider. This can help prevent the spread of HIV and protect your partners if you’ve recently contracted the virus.
Treatment for Acute HIV
If acute HIV is diagnosed, you can begin treatment early to prevent the progression of the virus. Progression is slowed when patients start ART within three months of the acute phase. ART can reduce the virus in the blood to levels that are no longer detectable. When the virus is undetectable, it’s also untransmittable. This is known as “U=U” (Undetectable = Untransmittable) and is supported by the National Institutes of Health.
You can prevent HIV by using protection when you have sex. If you believe you’re at high risk for HIV, you can also take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). This daily medication helps to prevent HIV infections. When taken daily, PrEP reduces the risk of HIV from sex by 99%.
Your Nurx™ care provider can help you get PrEP easily and affordably online. The medication is free for 99% of our patients. You must take lab tests at home before you can begin receiving PrEP from Nurx. We’ll work with you to make these tests as affordable as possible. Once approved, you’ll get a three-month supply of Truvada or Descovy with every order.
Individuals at high risk for HIV are those:
- In a sexual relationship with someone who has HIV.
- Who do not always use a condom during sex with partners who have a high risk for HIV.
- Who have injected drugs in the last six months and shared a needle or have been in drug treatment.
- Having anal sex without a condom.
Understanding the symptoms, stages, and risk factors for HIV will help you protect yourself and your partners. You may not know if your partner is considered high risk, so regular screening is recommended for any sexually active person. If you have flu-like symptoms that last longer than the typical flu, speak to your local health care provider about getting HIV testing as soon as possible so you can identify the virus early and take proper steps to prevent its progression.