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A Message About Symptom Questions

June 1997

I have been receiving a very large number of questions asking me if a persons symptoms may be due to HIV/AIDS or not. As you have noticed from many of my responses, I cannot tell anyone whether HIV or AIDS may be causing their symptoms. I have found myself repeating the same information many times. I am therefore making the following recommendations to persons concerned about symptoms that they may be having.

  1. Carefully read all the information found on this page about symptoms. It should answer the vast majority of questions regarding symptoms.

  2. If you are having flu-like symptoms or a rash, I cannot tell you whether these may be due to Acute Viral Syndrome or not. Only HIV testing at 6 months can determine whether a person has HIV.

  3. If you are having any symptoms that are not going away after 1 to 2 weeks, or if your symptoms are very severe, see your physician, regardless of what you think the cause of your symptoms may be.


  4. If you have been exposed to HIV, consider getting tested 6 months after a possible exposure to the virus. This is true whether you are having symptoms or not. This is the only way to know whether you have been infected with HIV.

  5. If you have a specific symptom question that has not already been addressed here, I'd be glad to answer it. But remember that I cannot tell you whether your symptoms may be due to HIV or not. Because EVERY symptom associated with HIV/AIDS looks like the symptoms of other illnesses, I cannot tell you if your personal symptoms may be related to HIV/AIDS. Again, only HIV testing can determine that.

  6. Before submitting a question (about symptoms or other issues related to HIV/AIDS), check to see if your question has already been answered previously on this webpage. There's already a large number of questions and answers that should address many of your concerns. Because of space limitations, and to keep this website as readable as possible, it's important that we not repeat the same questions (and answers) over and over.

  7. Remember, if you have concerns that you would like me to personally address, in addition to leaving public questions here, you can also e-mail me directly, or call me (or my staff) at our 800 number.

I have seen a lot of people convincing themselves that they may have HIV, based on their symptoms. Many people have tried to "match their symptoms" to that of Acute Viral Syndrome and full-blown AIDS. Please do not do this! It's very easy to convince yourself you have HIV/AIDS based on symptoms, when in fact you may not even be infected. I have personally seen many cases where a person convinced themselves that they had HIV (based on their symptoms), went through major stress and anxiety (for months or even years), and then turned up HIV negative 6 months or more after the exposure that they were concerned about. I'm trying to avoid other persons from going through the same unnecessary mental torment. The only thing that symptoms tell you is, if they do not go away, or if they get very severe, then you need to see a doctor. That's all they tell you. Please do not diagnose yourselves based on symptoms!

You will also note that nobody, not yourselves, myself, nor anybody on the Internet, nor any AIDS Hotline, can tell you if your symptoms may be HIV related, without having laboratory tests done.

With this said, let me review with you the symptoms of HIV/AIDS in detail.

The following information compares the symptoms of both recent HIV infection, and the symptoms due to full-blown AIDS. You will note that the symptoms of AIDS itself tend to be chronic, long-term and can recur over and over. This differs from the symptoms of recent HIV infection, which are acute, only last for a week or two, and do NOT recur over and over.

When we're talking about symptoms, it's important to remember that there are actually 2 periods of time when one may show symptoms.

Within the first 4-6 weeks after infection, some people with HIV (up to 70%) show symptoms due to "Acute Viral Syndrome." This occurs during your bodys initial response against the virus. During this time, a person may show symptoms that look exactly like the flu (headaches, body aches, fevers, fatigue etc.). These symptoms do NOT appear as cold symptoms (coughing, sneezing, congestion, runny nose etc.) A rash is sometimes seen, primarily in the upper portion of the body. The rash may or may not itch, and can be raised. There is no such thing as an "HIV/AIDS rash", and if a rash is seen at all, it resembles rashes seen from many other skin conditions. All of the symptoms last for a week or two, then go away by themselves. They do NOT persist for many weeks or months. In some people with Acute Viral Syndrome, the symptoms can be very severe. In other people with HIV, these symptoms may be very mild. In still other people with HIV, they may not show these symptoms at all. A person may, or may not, show positive on an HIV test during this period of time. I must strongly emphasize here that ALL of the symptoms of Acute Viral Syndrome look exactly like the symptoms of other illnesses, so having flu symptoms or a rash does NOT indicate HIV infection, in of itself. It is also important to remember that not all people will get Acute Viral Syndrome, and in those that do get it, the severity can vary significantly from person to person. Because Acute Viral Syndrome looks exactly like the symptoms of many other illnesses, NOBODY can tell you whether or not your symptoms are due to this syndrome. Only HIV testing can determine if a person has HIV or not.

In regard to the symptoms related to full blown AIDS itself, they don't usually begin until literally years after infection. Before that time, a person can look and feel totally healthy with no symptoms at all. As for the specific symptoms of AIDS, there are no specific symptoms you could list. This is because AIDS is actually a group of diseases, and therefore you're dealing with groups of symptoms. Because AIDS is actually a group of diseases, there are literally dozens and dozens of different symptoms. Not everyone with AIDS has every disease and therefore not everyone has every symptom. Every symptom of AIDS looks like the symptoms of other illnesses. There are no symptoms that are unique to AIDS. Symptoms can include severe weight loss, fevers, drenching night sweats, fatigue, purple-colored blotches on the skin, severe headaches, severe diarrhea, and the list goes on and on.

Generally the symptoms tend to last for many weeks or months at a time, and do not go away by themselves (not without treatment). They can also recur over and over. Notice how this differs from the symptoms of Acute Viral Syndrome, which only lasts for a week or two, and does NOT recur over and over. AIDS symptoms are ongoing and can be very severe. AIDS-related symptoms do not begin until an average of 10 years after infection. You can have HIV and even full blown AIDS and have no symptoms at all!

Generally speaking, if you have any symptoms that last for more than 1 to 2 weeks and do not go away, or if you have any symptoms that are very severe, always seek medical attention, regardless of what you think the problem is. You can't assume any symptom is HIV/AIDS related until you get laboratory tests. Remember, every symptom related to HIV/AIDS looks like the symptoms of other illnesses. Therefore symptoms alone cannot determine whether a person has HIV or not. NOBODY can tell you whether or not your symptoms are due to HIV/AIDS, without getting tested. That's why laboratory testing is so important.

Also, if a person tests negative at the time that they are showing symptoms, that indicates that their symptoms are not AIDS related. A person first shows positive on the test (by 6 months after infection), and then later shows symptoms (an average of 10 years after infection). So if a person tests negative at the time that they're showing symptoms, that indicates that the symptoms are not AIDS-related.

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This article was provided by Rick Sowadsky, M.S.P.H..