HIV weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to getting sick. The virus attacks white blood cells called CD4 cells, which are essential to your body’s defense. Over time, HIV can lead to AIDS, a potentially life-threatening condition. But many people with HIV don’t have symptoms when they’re first infected, so they don’t know they have it. That’s why getting tested is important—it’s the only way to tell whether you have HIV.
When HIV progresses to AIDS, a person may develop infections and diseases which healthy immune systems can typically fight off, or certain cancers. HIV-associated issues can affect many parts of the body, including the brain and spinal cord, the heart, the respiratory system, the digestive tract, the genitals, and the skin.1
While there’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, taking medicine called antiretroviral therapy (ART) can lower a person’s viral load and slow the progression of HIV into AIDS. This means people on ART can improve life expectancy, stay healthier, and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV.
Today, about 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV. One in eight people living with HIV don’t realize they are infected. HIV is a serious disease that can lead to death if untreated. Take charge of your life and order our quick & confidential HIV test.
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HIV infection happens in three stages, and its symptoms depend on which stage you’re in.2 Within a few weeks of infection, some people develop a brief flu-like illness, but not everyone does. Symptoms can vary from person to person, and there can be long periods of time during HIV infection when you have no symptoms at all. It can take 8-10 years or more for severe symptoms to develop.
Right after being infected with HIV, you may have no symptoms and feel healthy. Within 2-4 weeks after being infected with HIV, some people feel sick, feverish, tired, and achy. This reaction is a sign of something called HIV seroconversion, when the body first tries to fight the virus.
Because early HIV symptoms may seem like the flu or a cold, they can go underestimated and overlooked. But the virus multiplies rapidly during the early stage, making it easy to spread HIV to other people.
Early HIV symptoms can include:
These first signs of HIV usually only last a few weeks. Often, you won’t get symptoms again for several years. But if you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, get tested. If you have HIV, detecting HIV early can help you get earlier treatment to keep you healthier. Learn more about when to get tested.
The second stage of HIV is called chronic HIV infection or clinical latency. During this stage, there are no symptoms. However, even when you feel fine, HIV continues to multiply at a lower rate and infect new cells. The virus slowly kills white blood cells and destroys the immune system’s ability to protect your health.
By knowing your status and taking medicine if you have HIV, you can stay in this stage for longer.
AIDS stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It’s the final, most severe stage of HIV infection. People with AIDS have badly damaged immune systems, making them vulnerable to certain opportunistic infections and cancers.
Symptoms of AIDS can include:
HIV makes it harder for your body to keep you healthy. Left untreated, HIV leads to AIDS, when the number of immune cells is very low, or specific disease syndromes—called AIDS-defining illnesses—occur.3 Having AIDS makes you vulnerable to deadly complications from infection or certain cancers.
When HIV has weakened the immune system, viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, and certain cancers take advantage of the body’s compromised defenses. These are called opportunistic infections. Opportunistic infections (OIs) occur less commonly and less severely in people with healthy immune systems.
Common opportunistic infections include:4
People with HIV/AIDS are at an increased risk for developing certain cancers, such as:5
Coinfections are when someone is living with more than one infection at the same time. Having HIV along with another infection can cause complications and make infections more difficult to treat.
Certain infections that commonly occur alongside HIV include:6
It’s common for people with HIV to have other health issues. If you’re managing another health condition along with HIV, HIV can affect the frequency and severity of symptoms, and the progression of disease.
Wasting syndrome, also known as cachexia, is when a person involuntarily loses at least 10% of their body weight, especially muscle mass. It’s common in people with AIDS who aren’t being treated. Often, wasting is accompanied by weakness, fever, and diarrhea.
Wasting syndrome can make illness worse and increase the risk of death, so it’s important that people with HIV take antiretroviral medicine and eat well.7
HIV can cause many different conditions that affect your brain and central nervous system. Neurological issues can come from damage the virus itself does, or from diseases that develop, like infections and cancers associated with HIV/AIDS.8
Neurological complications of HIV include:
These neurological issues usually don’t occur until HIV has developed into its advanced stages.
HIV can cause chronic inflammation, putting people living with HIV at increased risk for various health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and bone disease.9
Having HIV doesn’t mean you can’t have children. But if you’re pregnant and have HIV, you can pass HIV to your baby any time during pregnancy, labor, or birth, or by breastfeeding. This is because the baby can be exposed to certain HIV-infected bodily fluids like blood, vaginal fluids, and breast milk.
The good news is that the risk of mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy can be lowered to 1 percent or less if you:
In some cases, a doctor may also recommend a scheduled C-section.
At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, within 10 years of being infected with HIV, a person could expect to get AIDS and then live 1-3 years more.
Today, improved HIV medicines can better manage the virus. This means young people with HIV who begin the right care and treatment soon after infection can expect to live a near-normal lifespan. That being said, your personal life expectancy depends on various factors such as when you started treatment, your gender, and your smoking, drug, and alcohol habits.
Without an HIV test, it’s often hard to tell you have HIV. It’s not uncommon for people with HIV to have no symptoms. Since the first HIV symptoms can be mild and general, HIV may go overlooked and untreated for a long time—meanwhile damaging and weakening the immune system.
Knowing your HIV status is key to preventing serious health problems. If you have HIV, early detection helps you get the proper medical care and treatment sooner, so you can live a longer and healthier life. Getting tested is quick and simple, and can be done confidentially at a doctor’s office, clinic, or local lab.
Medically Reviewed by J. Frank Martin JR., MD on February 6, 2020Written by Taysha on January 26, 2020