Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus which attacks the cells in your immune system, usually over a long duration of time, and leaves your body unable to fight off everyday infections and diseases. HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids, which include blood, semen, vaginal and anal fluids as well as breast milk but cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat or urine. According to NHS, the most common cause of contracting HIV infection in UK is unprotected vaginal or anal sex.
Before trying to establish the symptoms of HIV, it is important to get an idea of how the virus comes about and progresses. According to NHS, two to six weeks after contracting the HIV infection, a person may experience a short flu like illness, which usually lasts for a week or two. The surprising thing is that when these symptoms disappear, a person can feel well for a long time. HIV may not cause any more symptoms to appear for many years, during which the virus continues to damage a person’s immune system all the while. This is the reason why many people with HIV don’t know they are infected until much later.
If left untreated, HIV can progress through a series of stages: from initial flu-like seroconversion illness to late stage HIV or AIDS. A seroconversion illness is defined as a short one- or two-week illness during which people may experience symptoms like fever, sore throat or body rashes. There are several symptoms of HIV, which usually vary from person to person and also depend on what stage the disease is at.
Below are the three stages of an HIV infected person passes through as well as some symptoms they may experience:
This stage is marked by the flu like seroconversion illness discussed above. This is the body’s natural reaction to the HIV infection. Within two to four weeks of being infected with HIV, around two- thirds of people will experience these flu-like symptoms, which might present as:
These symptoms will usually last for a week or two. Some people may not experience any symptoms at all during this initial stage of HIV.
This stage is also known as chronic HIV infection. During this phase, the virus is still active but multiplies slowly, at very low levels. Infected people in this stage may not experience any symptoms or feel unwell. If a person is not undergoing any HIV treatment, then this stage can last for 10 to 15 years, although some people may move through this stage faster than others.
During this clinical latency stage, HIV can still be transmitted to other people if a person has a detectable viral load. Viral load is defined as the amount of HIV in the blood. People who are taking proper HIV medication and have an undetectable viral load are less likely to transmit the virus to others. At the end of this stage, a person’s viral load starts to go up. As this happens, a person may begin to experience other symptoms as the virus levels increase in the body and infection progresses to stage 3.
AIDS (Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the last and most severe stage of HIV infection. At this stage, the body’s immune system is so badly weakened that a person can catch a number of severe illnesses such as pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB) and cancer.
It's a common misconception that AIDS is transmittable. It's important to understand that HIV and AIDS are not the same. HIV refers to the virus which progresses to AIDS, while AIDS refers to the symptoms which develop when HIV is not treated. However, a person with AIDS can still carry and pass on HIV to other people.
Symptoms of AIDS include:
Certain groups of people are advised to have regular HIV tests as they are at greater risk of contracting this virus. These include Black African heterosexuals, men who have sex with other men as well as people who share syringes or other types of injecting equipment. The most important thing to remember is that proper HIV medication can enable a person to stay healthy and live a normal lifespan.
The sooner a person seeks medical advice and gets tested for HIV if they suspect they might have been exposed to the virus, the better chance they have of managing it.