By Colleen de Bellefonds and Sarah Bradley
What if I told you that early HIV symptoms actually feel more like a common cold than anything else? ‘Most people who get infected don’t even know. It’s only in hindsight they recognise the symptoms,’ says Michael Horberg, director of HIV/AIDS for Kaiser Permanente.
During the first few weeks after infection (a stage known as acute HIV infection or acute retroviral syndrome), some people notice things like fever, aches and sore throat. But after acute infection, patients move into clinical latency stage, or chronic HIV, which is largely symptom-free.
What is HIV?
A refresher: HIV (AKA human immunodeficiency virus) is an incurable virus that attacks your body’s immune system. It can be passed on through bodily fluids like semen, blood and breast milk; though, not through saliva. When it comes to HIV prevention, the the general consensus is to use condoms or, in America, the CDC advises the possibility of exploring new medications like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which aim to prevent the transmission of HIV.
While there is no cure for the disease, most HIV patients can still love long, healthy lives.
While there is no cure for the disease, most HIV patients can still love long, healthy lives thanks to antiretroviral therapy (ART) treatments. However, left untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which can make you even more susceptible to severe illnesses and eventually lead to death.
The only way to really know whether you have HIV is to get tested (which you should be doing at least once a year if you’re sexually active and have unprotected sex). There are two options for anonymous and confidential home testing but you need to make sure your tests are FDA-approved and be aware that results are not always accurate (and may require a follow-up test if positive). Ask your local NHS HIV testing services for details or visit test.hiv.
Since early detection of HIV can prolong your lifespan and reduce your transmission rates, it’s important to be aware of the potential symptoms (as well as the fact that, in most cases, there are no symptoms). Here’s what you need to know about HIV symptoms:
1. You have a fever and chills
A low-grade fever —99.5 to 101 F—accompanied by chills is one of the more common HIV symptoms you might notice. ‘Your body is trying to fight a foreign body that isn’t supposed to be there, in this case ineffectively,’ says Horberg.
While raising your body temperature does actually kill some weaker viruses, like the flu, it’s not enough to wipe out HIV. The fever usually lasts for a week or two, but it can pop up for just a day. ‘If there’s any chance you could have been infected, get tested,’ Horberg adds.
2. You wake up with night sweats
Getting damp on a muggy night without air conditioning is definitely not the same as night sweats, which result in puddles of sweat that’ll make you want to change your sheets. ‘The body is trying to release off toxins,’ says Horberg.
If you’re soaking your sheets over the course of a few nights, definitely check in with your doctor.
Although HIV can cause night sweats, plenty of other potential culprits do as well, including menopause, mononucleosis and cancers like lymphoma and leukemia, says Horberg. So if you’re soaking your sheets over the course of a few nights, definitely check in with your doctor.
3. You’re breaking out in a rash
Some people who experience HIV symptoms notice a light red rash all over their bodies, including their arms, torso and legs—although it can appear in just one or two spots. ‘It’s a general redness, not discrete red bumps. If you’ve ever had a drug reaction rash, it’s similar to that,’ says Horberg.
It usually lasts at least a week, and most patients say it’s not itchy; it’s a reaction to fever along with your body’s natural inflammation response as it fights off infection.
4. Your throat is sore
An inflammatory response to a serious viral infection can also cause your throat to become inflamed, making it hard to swallow. But unlike strep, your doctor won’t spot patches of white, just redness and inflammation like you’d get with a cold.
‘Lots of viruses affect your throat,’ says Horberg; but if you’re concerned about HIV, it’s best to see a doctor about this one.
5. You feel sleepy and achy all over
You might feel generally uncomfortable (and really fatigued) for at least a week after you’re first infected with HIV, says Horberg.
You might feel generally uncomfortable and fatigued for at least a week after you’re first infected.
It’s an unrelenting exhaustion—even going to work or just sticking to your daily routine will be a chore.
‘Everything hurts. It’s hard to move, and you just can’t make yourself comfortable,’ says Horberg. ‘Your body is fighting the HIV virus, and it’s tired.’
6. Your neck, armpits and groin are swollen
Your lymph nodes—located in your neck, armpits and groin—manufacture infection-fighting cells, and they’re working overtime at the same time they’re under direct attack from HIV. That’s why over a third of people who’ve been exposed to the virus notice these glands appear bigger than normal, explains Horberg.
If you feel several swollen lymph nodes in different locations, it’s definitely a symptom to check with your doctor stat.
7. You have a yeast infection
Yeast are microscopic fungi that naturally live in your mouth and genitals. When you’re first infected with HIV, however, they can grow out of control, causing a yeast infection. ‘Your body’s own natural ability to fight other infections is being attacked,’ says Horberg.
When you’re first infected with HIV, fungi can grow out of control, causing a yeast infection.
That said, conditions like diabetes also commonly cause yeast infections—and some women without any underlying diseases simply get yeast infections more often than others. So check in with your doc for treatment; if you think there’s a chance you could have recently been infected with HIV, ask if you should get tested.
8. You have a mouth ulcer
Mouth ulcers are tender, round, whitish pits in the lining of your mouth—and they can be caused by inflammation as your body tries to fight off HIV, says Horberg.
They often cause a stinging sensation, and are more sensitive to acidic foods like lemons. It should be noted, however, that mouth ulcers happen for a variety of different reasons too, like stress, food allergies, or hormonal changes.
9. You start losing weight unexpectedly
In its later stages, untreated HIV causes what’s known as wasting, or loss of fat and muscle mass, because the virus causes you to lose your appetite and prevents your body from absorbing nutrients, says Horberg.
In its later stages, untreated HIV causes what’s known as wasting, or loss of fat and muscle mass.
While the exact amount you’ll shed varies, it’s noticeable and often happens over a long period of time. ‘Often your friends and loved ones will comment that you’re wasting away,’ says Horberg.
‘Typically, it doesn’t happen in patients who have been treated well with modern medicines.’
10. You get diagnosed with meningitis
As HIV disseminates through your central nervous system, it can cause viral meningitis, a swelling of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord, says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopskins Bloomberg School of Public Health. According to the CDC, common symptoms of viral meningitis include fever, irritability, lethargy, and vomiting.
Cryptococcal meningitis is also commonly associated with HIV infections, though usually in later stages or in patients with AIDS. Most people are exposed to the cryptococcus fungus at some point, but a weakened immune system can’t fight off exposure the way a healthy one can.
11. Your stomach feels off
A trio of gastrointestinal symptoms—diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting—may also be a marker for initial HIV infection, says Amruta Padhye, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Missouri Health Care.
‘With rising viremia [levels of virus in the blood], the immune system is in a state of hyperactivation,’ she explains. Bottom line? Your GI distress might not be just a stomach bug, so get it checked out if you’re at risk for HIV.
If you think you might be at risk of HIV, visit your local NHS HIV testing services.
*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.