When someone is first infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), in around 60% of cases, they can experience flu-like symptoms during the first few weeks.  These symptoms are a sign that your immune system has noticed the virus and is putting up a fight against the new infection.

Any symptoms, when they occur will usually be two to six weeks after infection.  Symptoms can last for up to four weeks. 

Research has shown that early diagnosis of HIV is important as it allows better monitoring of the disease progression and better treatments. This means that your health can be monitored closely and managed so that you receive the most appropriate care for you. With correct management HIV is no longer the life-threatening illness it once was. Better2Know has HIV tests available that can detect the virus from just ten days after any potential exposure.

Early symptoms

Not everyone has symptoms but when they do occur they commonly include:

  • Runny nose
  • Feeling unwell
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Body rash

Other symptoms can include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Joint pain
  • Aching muscles
  • Swollen glands
  • Feeling sick
  • Diarrhoea

These symptoms are common to many illnesses, including colds and flu, so having these symptoms does not mean that you have HIV.  Therefore the only real way to know if you have HIV is to get tested.

Symptoms of HIV over longer periods

After the first stage there follows a longer period where there are fewer symptoms, which is known as the asymptomatic stage.  If you have untreated HIV then you can look and feel well for the first few years following your infection. You may however find that it takes you longer to get over colds and other infections in this time. This phase can last 8 to 10 years without treatment. It is during this time the virus is attacking your immune system causing a drop in the CD4 count.  This is when damage is done to the body. CD4 is a protein found on the surface of a type of white blood cell (T cells).  These cells play an important role in fighting off all infections. It is these CD4 cells that send a signal to other cells in the body that an infection is present and needs to be destroyed.  A drop in CD4 cells means that it is harder for the body to fight off any infection, which is why being infected with the HIV virus can mean that it takes you longer to get over other illnesses.

If you are not treated your CD4 count will drop and your immune system will be weakened.  You may begin to experience signs of other illnesses. This is likely to be a sign that you may have entered the third stage: the symptomatic stage.  Common infections such as pneumonia and TB are more likely at this stage due to your weakened immune system. Signs of these other illnesses can include sudden weight loss, night sweats, and an increase in frequency of cold sore outbreaks, swollen glands, tiredness and diarrhoea.

It is at this stage, where your immune system can no longer cope as other infections occur, that you may be diagnosed with AIDS (an AIDS defining illness will occur). Most HIV positive people who take the appropriate treatment early enough, will not go on to develop AIDS.

Any of these symptoms can occur in people without HIV.  The only way to know is to get tested. You should take a test if you are at risk, even if you have no symptoms. An early diagnosis is important for successful treatment.

Always consider an HIV test if :

  • You have had unprotected sexual intercourse (without a condom) with a new partner
  • A sexual partner tells you they have HIV
  • You have shared needles or injecting equipment
  • You have had a tattoo or piercing without a sterile needle
  • You, or your partner, have had unprotected sexual intercourse with other partners
  • You, or your partner, have another STI
  • You, or your partner are pregnant or planning a pregnancy
  • There is any chance that an exchange of bodily fluids may have taken place with someone who is or may be HIV positive