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What Are the Symptoms of HIV and AIDS?

November 19, 2009

When it comes to the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, there are three major points to keep in mind:

  1. There's a big difference between the symptoms of HIV and the symptoms of advanced HIV, also known as AIDS.
  2. It's what you do that puts you at risk for HIV -- not how you feel.
  3. Your mind is a powerful thing.

1. There's a big difference between the symptoms of HIV and the symptoms of advanced HIV, also known as AIDS.

HIV is a virus that attacks your immune system. During its initial assault (which is known as acute infection or primary infection), your immune system tries to mount a defense. That defense can cause many people to develop symptoms that usually go away after a few days.

Here's the catch: Those symptoms, when they do occur (most people experience only very minor symptoms, some people experience none at all), are almost impossible to tell apart from symptoms you might get if you have another type of viral infection, such as the flu.

SymptomPossible Symptom of Flu?Possible Symptom of Acute HIV?
Night sweatsYesYes

The only time you're likely to develop any symptoms of HIV is during the "acute" phase, which lasts for six to 12 weeks after you've been infected. Once that period ends, you may well go years without your body giving away any sign whatsoever that you have HIV.

This is why it's so important for everybody to get tested for HIV regularly (preferably once a year as part of a routine health checkup). Having HIV may be scary, but having HIV and not knowing it is a lot scarier, as we're about to explain.

Having "AIDS" means your HIV disease has advanced to a point where it has seriously damaged your immune system. Once you've been infected with HIV, the virus begins to slowly, but surely, eliminate your body's CD4 cells, which you need in order to fight off other infections and diseases. AIDS is an official term that indicates that your CD4 count is (or has at one time been) under 200, or that you've had one of 16 "opportunistic infections." These conditions tend to develop among people who have had HIV for several years without receiving any treatment. In fact, you can be diagnosed with AIDS at the same time you're diagnosed with HIV -- and many people are, since they don't get tested for HIV regularly. The symptoms of AIDS are often the first sign that people see indicating that something is wrong.

Scientists have developed a wide range of HIV medications that can essentially stop HIV from damaging your immune system, or at least dramatically slow the rate of damage. But if you don't know you have HIV, you won't take those medications, and the virus will continue to do its dirty work.

HIV affects people differently. In some people, HIV might lead to AIDS within a few years after they were infected. On the flip side, some people can go 20 years or more without ever developing AIDS. Ten years has been found to be the average amount of time that passes between when a person is infected with HIV and when he or she begins experiencing the symptoms of AIDS.

2. It's what you do that puts you at risk for HIV -- not how you feel.

Because the symptoms of acute HIV are almost impossible to tell apart from the symptoms of the flu, they're not a good enough reason on their own for you to run and get tested for HIV. What really matters is whether you did anything within the past six to 12 weeks that may have put you at risk for HIV.

Remember: HIV has to get into your bloodstream in order to infect you, and that isn't going to happen during the course of most everyday activities. In fact, of the hundreds of things you might do during the course of your day, these are the only ones that put you at risk for getting HIV because of the possibility that during one of these activities someone else's blood might enter your own bloodstream (which, incidentally, cannot happen if a scab or a sore spot on your skin brushes against a surface that looks as if it has dried blood on it):

That's it. For any other type of activity -- kissing someone with HIV, sharing food or drinks with them, touching something an HIV-positive person touched -- there's basically no chance that whatever you did resulted in you getting HIV. If you're curious about whether specific sexual acts are riskier than others, check out these frequently asked questions from's "Ask the Experts" forums.

3. Your mind is a powerful thing.

Your mind can make it seem as if your tongue is covered in the white spots that sometimes indicate thrush, when in fact it's perfectly pink. Your mind can also make you feel tired and lethargic even though you're perfectly well-rested. It can make you break out into rashes, elevate your heart rate or cause you to wake up at night drenched in a cold sweat.

In short, your mind can convince you that you have HIV when you don't. This can happen for any number of reasons, including guilt, stress or obsessive-compulsiveness. The key is to realize when your fears about HIV are legitimate and when they're not.

Keep in mind that, if you're worried that something you did put you at risk for HIV, no matter how "out there" you might think your action was, it's pretty much guaranteed that other people have worried about the same thing. In fact,'s "Ask the Experts" forum on safe sex and HIV prevention is flooded with tons of questions every day. It's normal to be scared, especially if you don't know much about HIV. But that is why it is important to educate yourself: so you don't have to be unnecessarily frightened anymore.

That education includes getting an HIV test. It doesn't hurt to be sure you're negative -- in fact, all adults and sexually active teenagers should get tested for HIV periodically, in the same way that you periodically check your cholesterol levels, or that women periodically check their breasts for lumps.

But if you find yourself going back for an HIV test every month even though you haven't done anything high-risk (i.e., unprotected sex or sharing needles), or if you find yourself constantly wondering whether mundane, everyday activities put you at risk, or if you find yourself constantly checking your tongue for spots or your skin for rashes, remember just how powerful your mind can be, and consider talking to a counselor who can help you put things in perspective.

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