Signs and Symptoms of HIV

The 4 Most Frequently Asked Questions About HIV Symptoms

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Photograph © Adrian Clark

Understanding the signs and symptoms of HIV allows us to proactively treat (and even avoid) certain infections well before they occur. It's important to note, however, that there are often no symptoms at the onset of HIV infection, and that when symptoms finally do appear, it's often after the virus has caused irreparable damage to a person’s immune system.

Fear and misconceptions about HIV can often prevent people from seeking the treatment and care they need, with some misinterpreting the term "asymptomatic" as meaning "without infection."

Others, meanwhile, wait until symptoms intensify or ignore them altogether until they eventually subside—failing to realize that the abatement of short-term symptoms is neither an indication of improvement nor the "all clear" sign that an infection has been averted.

So widespread are these misconceptions that many continue to avoid treatment unnecessarily, often for years. Today, the average CD4 count at the start of antiretroviral therapy (ART) stands at a mere 145 cells/mL for low income countries, 155 cells/mL for lower-middle income countries, 135 cells/mL for upper-middle income countries, and 274 cells/mL in high income countries.

(U.S. guidelines recommend ART at or even above CD4 counts of 500, while persons with a CD4 count below 200 are considered to have AIDS.)   

So while it is important to recognize the signs of HIV, symptoms alone can never confirm whether an infection has occurred or if an HIV-associated illness is developing.

Only an HIV test or an diagnosis from your doctor can confirm that.

What you can do is educate yourself. And it all starts by asking yourself a few, key questions:

1. What Are the Early Signs of HIV?

In 40% of recent HIV infections, flu-like symptoms will develop within 7-14 days of an exposure. This condition is commonly referred to as "acute retroviral syndrome" (or ARS).

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and persist for months at a time. Learn why it is so important to identify the signs of ARS, and how early intervention can prevent the development of long-term illness, both HIV- and non-HIV-related.

2. What Are the Symptoms of HIV by Stage?

Many of the symptoms related to early infection are due to body's response to HIV itself, wherein the immune system is placed on high alert in the presence of a foreign invader. The symptoms of later-stage infection occur when HIV gradually depletes the body's immune defenses, reducing its ability to fight infection. Learn why this occurs and how untreated HIV can lead to the development of so-called "AIDS-defining illnesses."

3. What Types of Opportunistic Infections Are There?

Infections are said to be "opportunistic" when the depletion of a body's immune defenses allows bacteria, viruses and other foreign agents the opportunity to infect. These not only include AIDS-defining illnesses, but common infections that a healthy immune system could otherwise avoid.

Learn what these opportunistic infections (OIs) are and in what organ systems they are most likely to present themselves.

4. How Long Can I Live If I Get HIV?

A 2014 update by the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study suggests that people who start HIV therapy at or above a CD4 count of 350 cells/mL may be able to enjoy a life expectancy equal to—or even greater than—that of the general population. Learn the factors that influence life expectancy in people living with HIV, as well as the conditions that can reduce longevity by as much as 22 years.


Willard, S.; Holzemer, W.; Wantland, D.; et al. "Does 'Asymptomatic' Mean Without Symptoms for Those Living with HIV Infection?" AIDS Care. March 2009; 21(3):322-328.

The IeDEA and ART Cohort Collaborations. “CD4 counts at antiretroviral therapy start rising globally, but could do better!” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes. January 2014; 65(1):e8-e16. doi: 10.1097

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