Symptoms of HIV by Stage

Knowing the Symptoms Is the First Step to Avoiding Them

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Photograph © Jeffrey Turner

The symptomatology of HIV is diverse and varies with the stage of infection. Many of the symptoms related to early infection are due to body's immediate response to the virus itself, wherein the immune system is activated in the presence of a foreign agent. The symptoms are, therefore, a result of the inflammation that occurs when the body actively fights an infection.

The symptoms of later stage infection are different.

These occur when HIV gradually deteriorates the body's immune response, reducing its ability to fight outside infection. The lower the immune response, the greater the risk (and range) of potential infections.

The symptoms are, therefore, HIV-related—meaning that while HIV provides the opportunity for infections to develop, the symptoms are the result of a specific opportunistic infection.

Incubation Period

When a person is infected with HIV, the virus goes through an incubation period of between one to three weeks. During this time, as the virus rapidly spreads through the body, the immune system triggers a response by means of defensive antibodies. These antibodies are used by the immune system to identify and neutralize disease-causing pathogens like HIV.

Modern HIV tests rely on the presence of antibodies (or a combination of antibodies and antigens) to confirm that an infection has taken place.

  If a HIV test is perform too early, during the so-called window period, the lack of antibodies could effect a false negative test result.

Acute Seroconversion

The incubation period is immediately followed by the acute seroconversion stage, wherein the body's immune defenses are fully activated and in combat with the infecting virus.

The symptoms that accompany seroconversion can be mild and easily mistaken for the flu. For some, in fact, there are no symptoms. For others, however, the effects can be far more pronounced and long-lasting.

Almost half of those newly infected with HIV will experience the following symptoms during acute seroconversion:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Night sweats
  • Malaise
  • Myalgia (a generalized, muscular ache or pain)
  • Rash (eczema-like in appearance and usually distributed around the upper parts of the body and/or palms of the hands)

Other symptoms can include sore throat, mouth/esophageal sores, arthralgia (joint pain), and lymphadenopathy (swelling of the lymph glands). Most of these symptoms will resolve within a week to a month on average, while lymphadenopathy can sometimes persist for years.

(While distressing, it's important to note that lymphadenopathy is more often he sign of a robust immune response rather than an immune failure.)

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)

AIDS (or acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the stage in infection where the body's immune system is compromised, allowing for the development of infections that the body could otherwise prevent.

Initially implemented as a means for disease surveillance, AIDS is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an HIV-infected person with

  • a CD4 count of under 200 cells per microliter (µL), and/or;
  • certain HIV-related conditions and symptoms."

These "certain" conditions are comprised of specific pulmonary, neurological and gastrointestinal diseases, as well as cancers and other illnesses that can affect those with compromised immune systems.

There are currently just over 25 AIDS-defining opportunistic conditions that can present at various stages in infection, often well above the CD4 threshold of 200 cells/µL. Unless antiretroviral therapy is immediately implemented, persons with an AIDS diagnosis generally survive for around three years on average.

Opportunistic Infections by CD4 Count

The CD4 count is a means by which to measure the body's immune strength as determined by the number of defensive CD4 cells.  As a general rule, people with CD4 counts of over 500 cells/µL are less prone to infection.

Normal CD4 counts can range anywhere from between 500 to 1600 cells/µL. Once the number falls below 500, the likelihood of infection increases as immune barriers are gradually depleted. These infections, listed by CD4 count, can include:

CD4 count between 500 to 250 cells/µL:

CD4 count between 250 to 100 cells/µL:

CD4 count between 100 to 50 cells/µL:

CD4 count under 50 cells/µL:

The Bottom Line

Neither symptoms—nor a lack of symptoms—are an indication as to whether an HIV infection has occurred. If you suspect you may have been infected, go to your nearest hospital, clinic or walk-in center for an HIV test.

By testing early and implementing HIV  therapy on diagnosis, people with HIV can significantly reduced the risk of HIV-related illness while increasing the likelihood of normal to near-normal life expectancy.


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