HIV was once nearly always a fatal diagnosis, but in recent years, advancements in medicine have transformed this deadly virus into a manageable chronic condition, especially with early detection and treatment. In addition to regular testing, particularly after engaging in any risky behaviors, recognizing the early symptoms can help an infected person life a longer and healthier life, even with an HIV diagnosis. Therefore, it is critical to recognize symptoms during the first stage in HIV’s progression, known as acute or primary HIV infection and sometimes referred to as ARS (acute retroviral syndrome). HIV is heavily infectious and is at
its most virulent during this first phase, making it even more vital to receive regular testing and be aware of early symptoms of infection.
When a patient is infected with HIV, they will begin to detect symptoms typically within a month or two. Some patients report symptoms as early as two weeks after exposure, while in others they can take as long as three months to appear or never show at all. Early symptoms of ARS include things like headache, fever, tiredness, swollen lymph nodes, and rash. Less common symptoms include muscle and joint pain, sore throat, and ulcers in the mouth or genitals. Even more rarely, night sweats and diarrhea can follow infection. Many of these symptoms can be mistaken for more common ailments like the flu, a respiratory infection, or gastrointestinal troubles. Again, the commonality and variance in time or appearance of symptoms make testing the only truly reliable way to determine whether or not one is infected.
What makes HIV and AIDS particularly dangerous is not the symptoms of the virus infecting the body itself, but in what’s known as opportunistic infections. HIV acts to lower the effectiveness of the immune system, leaving the body particularly susceptible to passing disease and infection-producing microorganisms that the body would usually fight off with ease. Once infected with HIV, the body has a hard time resisting these infections and can collect enduring symptoms related to these secondary infections. As a result of this process, increasing illnesses that do not resolve in the usual time frame or respond to usual treatments can also be a sign of HIV infection.
After the first highly infectious stage, the virus enters a period known as chronic or latent HIV. This phase can last a decade or longer, during which the virus goes into a relatively dormant phase and is not as virulent as it is in the first stage of ARS. Despite this, HIV is still quite infectious and absolutely capable of being transferred to others during risky behaviors. Latent HIV is not dead HIV; it is still quite possible to spread the disease even when no symptoms are presenting. Most HIV patients during this latent HIV stage show no symptoms, in fact, particularly those connected to HIV itself. Secondary infections from the lowered immune response may still be present. The latent phase eventually becomes full-blown AIDS, which brings with it symptoms like vomiting, nausea, fatigue, fever, and the increased presence of opportunistic infection. With early detection and treatment, an HIV patient can avoid ever developing AIDS.