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HIV symptoms

HIV has a number of symptoms but not everyone will get them. Many people do not have any symptoms and can live for many years without knowing they have HIV.  

There are three main stages of HIV infection, with different symptoms at each stage. 

You can’t know if you have HIV from symptoms alone. The only way to know for sure is to take an HIV test at a health facility or do an HIV self-test. 

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Symptoms, and how severe they are, vary from person to person. Some people will get symptoms and other people won’t. Symptoms change depending what stage of HIV infection you are in.  

See the next question and the ‘In detail’ tab for more information. 

What are the stages of HIV infection?

There are three stages of HIV infection if it is not treated.  

Stage 1: This happens after you are infected with HIV and can feel like flu. But not everyone will experience this. 

Stage 2: This is when many people start to feel better. This stage may last for 10 years or more. During this time, you may have no symptoms. 

Stage 3: This is when your immune system is very badly damaged and can no longer fight off serious infections and illnesses. You will feel very unwell. 

See the ‘In detail’ tab for more information. 

Does everybody get symptoms?

No. Some people who are not on treatment don’t get any symptoms during stages 1 and 2. They may not know they have the virus, but they can still pass on HIV. That’s why testing for HIV is so important because you can’t know if you have HIV from symptoms alone. 

How long does it take to get symptoms?

If you do get symptoms, this will likely start 2-6 weeks after the infection. 

I have symptoms. Does this mean I have HIV? What should I do?

Having symptoms does not mean you have HIV. The only way to know if you have HIV is by taking an HIV test. Visit your healthcare professional and they can arrange for you to get tested. 

HIV testing

Does treatment stop HIV symptoms?

Treatment will allow your immune system to recover and stop the symptoms. The earlier you are diagnosed with HIV and start treatment, the better your health will be over time.  

HIV treatment

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What happens at stage 1?

This is also called acute (primary) infection. The early symptoms of HIV can feel like having the flu. Around 2-6 weeks after getting HIV, you may start to experience these flu-like symptoms. These normally don’t last long (a week or two). You may only get some of the symptoms and some people don’t have any symptoms at all. 

Symptoms can include: 

  • fever (raised temperature) 

  • rash 

  • sore throat 

  • swollen glands 

  • headache 

  • upset stomach or diarrhoea 

  • joint aches and pains 

  • muscle pain. 

These symptoms happen because your body is reacting to the HIV virus. Cells that are infected with HIV are circulating throughout your blood system. In response, your immune system tries to attack the virus by producing HIV antibodies. This process is called seroconversion. It can take up to a few months to go through the seroconversion process. 

Because of this, HIV will not always show up in a test at this early stage, so your healthcare worker will talk to you about when you should test for HIV. This may be up to three months after you were exposed to HIV. You will need to test up to two more times to confirm your result.  

In this early stage of infection, the amount of HIV in your blood is high. You’re more likely to pass the virus onto others if you have unprotected sex or share needles to inject drugs.  

What happens at stage 2?

This is also called the asymptomatic stage. Once you have been through the acute primary infection stage and seroconversion process, you can often start to feel better. HIV may not cause any other symptoms for up to 10 or even 15 years. 

However, the virus will still be active, infecting new cells and making copies of itself. HIV can still be passed on during this stage. If left untreated, HIV infection will cause severe damage to the immune system. 

What happens at stage 3?

This is also called the symptomatic stage. By now, your immune system is severely damaged. At this point, you’re more likely to get serious infections or diseases that the body would otherwise be able to fight off. These infections are known as ‘opportunistic infections’ and if you get certain serious infections you are said to have AIDS. 

Symptoms can include: 

  • weight loss 

  • chronic diarrhoea 

  • night sweats 

  • fever 

  • persistent cough 

  • mouth and skin problems 

  • regular infections 

  • serious illness or disease. 

What happens when you get AIDS?

AIDS is when you develop certain serious opportunistic infections or diseases because of advanced stage 3 HIV infection. 

It’s important to get the right treatment as soon as possible. With treatment you can recover from AIDS-related infections and illness and bring HIV under control. For the best treatment outcomes, it is best to start treatment as soon as you are diagnosed with HIV. 

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