The first symptoms of an HIV infection can vary greatly. Most people infected with HIV develop symptoms similar to flu within two to four weeks. This flu-like condition is called an acute HIV infection. An acute HIV infection is the first stage of the infection. This stage lasts until the body has developed antibodies against the virus.
Symptoms HIV infection
The most common symptoms of the first stage of an HIV infection are:
- Skin rashes
- A sore throat
Other, slightly less common symptoms, are:
- Swollen or enlarged lymph nodes
- Ulcers in the mouth or genitals
- Sore muscles
- Joint pains
- Nausea and vomiting
- Night sweats
The symptoms of an acute HIV infection usually last one to two weeks. Do you recognise some of these symptoms? Then buy an HIV self test and/or visit a doctor to find out if you have an HIV infection.
Not everyone infected with HIV reaches stage 3 (AIDS). HIV can be controlled with medications called antiretroviral therapy. This medication combination is also called combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). This type of therapy can prevent the multiplication of the virus. Although it can usually stop the progression of HIV and improve quality of life, the treatment is most effective if initiated as early as possible. In addition, early detection and treatment of HIV prevents the transmission of the virus to other people.
How does AIDS develop?
After the first symptoms have disappeared, HIV can still be present in the body without causing any symptoms. During this period, the virus can be transmitted to others and the body can become weakened. Ultimately, this can lead to AIDS.
The weakening of the immune system occurs because HIV multiplies in specific immune cells (CD4 positive T cells, also known as CD4 cells). As HIV infections progress, CD4 cells are attacked and destroyed, making the body vulnerable to external infections. As soon as this happens, it is called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). This condition is known as stage 3, the final stage of the disease. The time of getting an HIV infection and the development of AIDS varies from a few months to 10 years, or even longer.
What are the symptoms of AIDS?
The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is characterized by a severely damaged immune system, which makes a person vulnerable to (opportunistic) infections. Many different problems can accompany these infections, such as:
- Persistent diarrhea
- Chronic fatigue
- Unwanted weight loss
- Coughing and shortness of breath
- Persistent fevers, chills and night sweats
- Skin rash, ulcers or lesions in the mouth or nose, on the genitals or under the skin
- Swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, groin or neck
- Ongewild gewichtsverlies
- Hoest en kortademigheid
- Memory loss, confusion or neurological disorders
How do you prevent HIV infections?
The most effective way to prevent an HIV infection is to use condoms at all times during vaginal, anal and oral sex. When used correctly, a condom acts as a barrier. This prevents the mixing of body fluids from someone with an HIV infection. In addition, needles, syringes and other drug injection devices must never be shared.
Although men and women generally have similar symptoms, there are some symptoms that only affect women or men.
HIV-symptoms among men
HIV can lead to hypogonadism or reduced production of genital hormones among both sexes. The effects of hypogonadism in men may cause erectile dysfunction and loss of libido. In addition, the HIV virus can cause ulcers on the penis.
HIV-symptoms among women
Women can experience changes in their menstrual cycle. A woman’s period flow may be less or more intense, periods may not occur, or severe PMS may occur. Stress or other sexually transmitted diseases that are common with HIV can also cause these symptoms. Another physical complaint that can occur in HIV-infected women is vaginal yeast infection. Yeasts are microscopic fungi that live naturally in the vagina. If a woman is infected with HIV, the fungi can become uncontrollable and cause vaginal yeast infections several times a year. Sometimes they are the first sign that the body is infected with the HIV virus. A fungal infection can be recognized by the following symptoms:
- Changed discharge; white and/or flaky
- Burning, itching or painful vagina
They belong to the signs of a pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This is the collective term for an infection of the uterus, ovaries and/or fallopian tubes. For some women, it is one of the first signs of an HIV infection or an STI. In addition, a woman may also experience symptoms such as fever, pain during sex or pain in the lower abdomen.
About the author – Dr. H.S. Hermanides
Dr. H.S. Hermanides obtained a PhD for her research on HIV in the Caribbean. She is currently working as a specialist in infectious diseases at the Red Cross Hospital in Beverwijk, The Netherlands.