An HIV-positive person may be symptom-free in the early stages of the disease or some may develop non-specific flu-like symptoms (including fever, rash, swollen lymph nodes and sore throat) within a month or two of the initial infection.
Many people experience no symptoms for years, until their T-cell count is low enough for AIDS to develop, after which symptoms may include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Oral thrush
- Recurring upper respiratory infections
- Night sweats
- Vision changes
As the immune system is weakened, opportunistic infections set in – the symptoms of which will vary according to that particular condition.
You cannot rely on symptoms to know whether you have HIV. The only way to know for sure is to get tested. If you think you have recently been exposed to HIV – if you have had oral, vaginal or anal sex without a condom with a known HIV-positive person or a partner whose HIV status you do not know or shared needles to inject drugs – get an HIV test.
Traditional HIV tests detect HIV antibodies. However, because it usually takes about three months for antibodies to develop, the antibody test may not be accurate if taken within 12 weeks of potentially being exposed to the disease, and it’s recommended that you wait three months before getting tested.
HIV has a well-documented progression. It will probably be fatal if left untreated because it overwhelms the immune system, resulting in AIDS. HIV treatment helps people at all stages of the disease, and treatment can slow or prevent progression from one stage to the next.
The three main stages include:
1. Acute infection:
Within two to four weeks after infection with HIV, you may feel sick with flu-like symptoms. This is called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS) or primary HIV infection, and it is the body’s natural response to the HIV infection. Remember that not everyone develops ARS, however, and some people may have no symptoms.
Large amounts of HIV are produced during this period of infection. The virus uses important immune system cells – called CD4 cells – to make copies of itself and destroys these cells in the process. Because of this, the CD4 count can fall quickly.
Your ability to spread HIV is highest during this stage because the amount of virus in the blood is very high.
Eventually, your immune response will begin to bring the amount of virus in your body back down to a stable level. At this point, your CD4 count will then begin to increase, but it may not return to pre-infection levels.
2. Clinical latency (inactivity or dormancy):
This period is sometimes called asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection. HIV is still active, but reproduces at very low levels. You may not have any symptoms or get sick during this time.
People who are on antiretroviral therapy (ART) may live with clinical latency for several decades. For people who are not on ART, this period can last up to a decade, but some may progress through this phase faster.
Toward the middle and end of this period, your viral load begins to rise and your CD4 cell count begins to drop. At this point, you may begin to have symptoms of HIV, as your immune system is too weak to protect you.
3. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome):
This stage occurs when your immune system is badly damaged and you become vulnerable to infections and infection-related cancers.
When the number of your CD4 cells falls 200 cells per microlitre of blood, you are considered to have progressed to AIDS. You can also be diagnosed with AIDS if you develop one or more opportunistic illnesses like tuberculosis, regardless of your CD4 count.
Without treatment, people who are diagnosed with AIDS typically survive about three years. Once someone has a dangerous opportunistic illness, life expectancy without treatment falls to about one year.
How Clicks Clinics can help you
Did you know Clicks offers HIV testing and counselling at their clinics? To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or book online at Clicks Clinics online.
HIV home test kits are also available for purchase in-store.
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