If you're reading this article, odds are it's because you're worried that you've been exposed to HIV. We're here to let you know: You're gonna be OK.
Before we dive in, here are a few things to know right off the bat about HIV/AIDS symptoms:
The symptoms of HIV infection can be extremely hard to tell apart from the symptoms of any number of other, much more common (and much easier to get) illnesses, such as the cold or flu.
HIV causes AIDS, but the two have very different sets of symptoms.
The only way to be sure whether you have HIV is to get tested.
If you do get tested and find out you're living with HIV, know that you're not alone, there's plenty of support and assistance out there for you, and HIV is completely treatable; it probably won't end your life, and it may not even shorten it.
OK, that's the most important stuff to keep in mind. Now let's get into the details.
There's a big difference between the symptoms of HIV and the symptoms of advanced HIV disease, also known as AIDS.
During the first few weeks of having HIV, in the phase of recent HIV infection, the immune system tries to mount a defense. It's similar to the defense that occurs if the immune system detects influenza, mononucleosis, or rubella. This immune response can cause some people to have symptoms that usually go away within a few weeks. Others may not notice that anything is even wrong.
If a person develops any initial symptoms of HIV infection, once they fade, they usually experience a long period of time in which there are no symptoms at all. Many years can go by—a decade or more, in fact—without a person feeling or showing any sign that they're living with HIV.
But without treatment, HIV will slowly and surely damage the immune system (the body's natural defense system against infections). This eventually makes people vulnerable to a wide range of health problems.
The symptoms of advanced HIV disease (AIDS, short for acquired immune deficiency syndrome) are in fact the symptoms of other infections and diseases that the weakened immune system has been unable to keep under control. As such, the list of possible symptoms of AIDS is highly varied. They are not symptoms of HIV itself.
We'll get to a list of symptoms that can be associated with HIV and AIDS in a little bit, but first, an important disclaimer: These symptoms do not—we repeat, do not!—apply to everyone.
You Can't Rely on Symptoms to Tell You If You Have HIV
A key message we want to get across with this article is that consulting web pages such as this and checking yourself for the symptoms mentioned is a completely unreliable way to tell whether you have HIV.
This is because:
The symptoms of recent HIV infection are hard to tell apart from the symptoms of other viral infections.
Many people with recent HIV infection don't notice any symptoms at all.
After that, most people living with HIV suffer no health problems for several years.
Although there are no symptoms, HIV may slowly and subtly damage a person's immune system.
The symptoms of advanced HIV only occur after many years of infection, when the immune system is already significantly weakened.
The only way to know whether you have HIV is to take an HIV test. Testing is easy to do and available at a huge range of locations. Modern tests are extremely reliable, detecting most infections within four weeks after exposure.
If you are told that the test result is negative, you can be confident that this result was accurate as of where you were in your life three months ago. Occasionally, infections take up to three months to be picked up by a test. But if the last time you could have been exposed to HIV was more than three months ago, you can be sure that your negative result is accurate: You do not have HIV.
But when people do notice symptoms, they usually develop within one to four weeks after acquiring HIV and last for two to four weeks. These symptoms are associated with the immune system's natural defense against HIV. They are sometimes referred to as acute retroviral syndrome (ARS).
Typically, people experience three, four, or more symptoms at the same time. These are the ones most commonly reported:
fever (high body temperature)
fatigue, tiredness, or lethargy
a skin rash, typically on the trunk or face rather than the limbs
muscle aches and pains
Symptoms reported by fewer people (less than half of those noticing symptoms) include:
swollen lymph nodes in the neck or armpit, which can be unusually large and tender
genital or anal ulcers
Relatively few people with recent HIV infection experience some other symptoms. These include abdominal pain, thrush, vomiting, and light sensitivity.
If These Aren't Symptoms of HIV, What Else Could It Be?
You should not assume you have HIV just because you have some of these symptoms. In fact, the symptoms we just listed are almost impossible to tell apart from symptoms you might have with another type of viral infection, such as the flu.
For most people, another infection is a much more likely explanation of HIV-like symptoms than HIV itself. For example, the flu and mono affect millions of Americans every year. By comparison, HIV infections occur much less frequently: somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 people become HIV positive each year in the U.S.
Here's a breakdown of common illnesses and infections that cause symptoms similar to recent HIV infection:
The flu (influenza) is a viral infection that can cause fever, sore throat, swollen lymph glands, muscle aches, headache, chills, and cough. Other viral infections of the upper respiratory tract, including the common cold, can also cause some of these symptoms.
Mono (infectious mononucleosis, usually caused by Epstein-Barr virus) can cause fever, sore throat, swollen lymph glands, fatigue, and rash. It's diagnosed with a blood test. There's no specific treatment, but you should get plenty of rest and the symptoms will go away in a few weeks.
A strep throat (infection with group A Streptococcus bacteria) can also cause sore throat, fever, swollen lymph glands, pain when swallowing, headache, and nausea. Strep infections can be diagnosed by your physician using a throat swab and treated with antibiotics.
Viral infections that cause gastroenteritis (inflammation of the intestines) are sometimes called "stomach flu." In adults, norovirus is the most common of these viral infections. They can cause diarrhea, vomiting, headache, fever, chills, and abdominal pain. Most cases resolve over time without treatment.
An allergic reaction to a new medicine can cause a skin rash, hives, and some other problems.
A recent infection with hepatitis B or C can cause fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and joint pain. Blood tests are needed to diagnose viral hepatitis.
Herpes simplex infection can cause cold sores, genital ulcers, fever, muscle aches, and swollen lymph glands.
Syphilis can cause a skin rash, sore throat, tiredness, headache, swollen lymph glands, fever, and weight loss.
Other infections that can cause some of the same symptoms as acute HIV include measles, rubella, cytomegalovirus, and toxoplasmosis.
If you are constantly worried about the possibility that you have HIV, it's possible that some feelings you have are symptoms of anxiety, rather than of HIV. Excessive anxiety—i.e., an anxiety disorder—can have symptoms including restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a feeling of being on edge, muscle tension, irritability, and problems sleeping. Support is available to help you overcome these feelings.
Still Think You Might Have HIV? Get Checked by a Health Care Professional
If you have some of the symptoms we've been discussing, you need to see a health care provider. Something is making you feel unwell, and you may need treatment. Medical professionals have the training and the diagnostic tools to identify the cause of the problem.
If you are concerned that HIV could be the cause, mention it to your provider. If you've recently had a sexual encounter that could have exposed you to HIV, then HIV should be among the possibilities that are considered. Similarly, if you've recently shared injecting equipment or could have been exposed to HIV in another way, you need to be candid about this. If your current health care provider makes you feel uncomfortable or judges you when you bring up these topics, know that you don't have to put up with it: There are many other providers out there who will be more understanding.
Your provider may want to ask you in some detail about the incident you are concerned about. This is so he or she can assess whether it really could have exposed you to HIV. It's quite common for people to become overly worried about an event and convince themselves that it's given them HIV. It's possible that you are anxious about an incident that, in fact, poses no HIV risk at all.
If that's the case, your provider will focus on potential causes of your symptoms that are more plausible and likely. For example, he or she may want to test you for Epstein-Barr virus or group A Streptococcus bacteria. That way, you will be closer to getting the medical treatment you need.
But, if you have the symptoms mentioned above and it's possible that you were exposed to HIV in recent weeks (for example, through penetrative sex without a condom), then HIV needs to be considered. Your provider should include an HIV test among the other tests that are run.
There are several different types of HIV tests, including tests you can take in the privacy of your own home. But for the most reliable results, it's best to go to a health care provider and get the most sensitive type of HIV test, called a fourth-generation HIV test. This is a blood test that can detect both antibodies (which your body creates to defend itself against HIV infection) and antigens (which are actual parts of the virus).
Usually, a fourth-generation test is not the first test you'll receive—it's more likely that you'll be given tests that can return results more quickly, and then get the more sensitive test if one of those quicker tests comes back positive. All of these HIV tests are very accurate, but the fourth-generation test is the gold standard, so if you're extremely worried, make sure that your provider understands your anxiety.
If You Have No Symptoms
Remember, up to half of people who have recently become HIV positive don't notice any symptoms. This means that the only way to know whether you have HIV is to take a test.
Symptoms of Advanced HIV Disease (a.k.a. AIDS)
If a person living with HIV goes for a long time without taking antiretroviral treatment, their immune system may eventually become so severely weakened that it loses its ability to fight off other infections and diseases.
This stage is known as advanced HIV disease, or AIDS. It is completely preventable and does not occur in people who take effective antiretroviral treatment.
The symptoms a person with AIDS experiences are those of the other infections and diseases—not of HIV itself. For example, because the immune system is weak, pneumonia may take hold. In this case, the symptoms would be those seen in any other case of pneumonia: fever, trouble breathing, and a cough that produces mucus.
Because so many other infections and diseases may occur when a person has advanced HIV disease, the list of potential symptoms is endless. It includes lack of energy, weight loss, yeast infections, skin rashes, and short-term memory loss.
Equally, the list of other medical conditions that could cause the same symptoms is endless. A person may have pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a cancer that is not in any way HIV-related. Another health condition could cause the same symptoms.
Again, if there is any doubt about whether such symptoms are HIV-related or not, getting an HIV test is an absolute must.