What is Acute HIV Infection?

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  • Written By: Karyn Maier
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2019
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Acute HIV infection, also known as primary acute HIV infection and acute seroconversion syndrome, refers to the period of time in which a person is initially infected with the human immunodeficiency virus and before it progresses to late stage HIV infection, otherwise known as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Unfortunately, many people are unaware of being in the acute stage, since there may be little or no symptoms for several weeks after contracting the virus. In addition, people often disregard the possibility of HIV infection in the belief that their symptoms are associated with influenza or other viral infection. There may also be a delayed onset of the disease and a long-lasting remission.

In sudden onset, patients typically suffer from a sore throat, swollen lymph glands, fever, fatigue, and diarrhea. Sometimes, muscle or joint pain is reported. Since these symptoms are generally similar to those experienced with the flu, it’s little wonder that they maybe ignored at first. To make matters worse, symptoms often disappear within one to four weeks, furthering the idea that they are due to another cause. In fact, it is quite common for these symptoms to occur while another infection is indeed present, which contributes to compromising the immune system and giving the HIV virus a foothold. There are 24 such opportunistic infections, the most common being oral candidiasis (thrush), herpes simplex, pneumocystis pneumonia, and tuberculosis.


Delayed onset acute HIV infection is characterized by the above symptoms as well as unexplained weight loss and the appearance of rash-like lesions. With the exception of unintentional weight loss, these symptoms are also likely to fade within a relatively short time. The patient may even remain symptom-free for as long as ten years before progressing from acute HIV infection to active HIV infection, a period known as the latency phase.

Confirmation of HIV infection is made by testing the blood for the presence of the HIV antigen and its related antibodies. However, it takes time for these to appear. HIV is a retrovirus, meaning that it uses the enzyme RNA-reverse transcriptase as a pathway to convert its own ribonucleic acid (RNA) into deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which it then uses to replace the normal DNA of healthy cells. While this is going on, the body’s immune system will begin to produce antibodies to combat the virus. Unfortunately, it takes an average of three months for these antibodies to appear in measurable levels in more than 95 percent of HIV infected patients. In some cases, it may take up to six months.

Eventually, the virus will render the immune system incapable of producing enough infection-fighting lymphocytes and other specialized white blood cells and, at this point, the infected person has arrived at end stage HIV infection, or AIDS. However, with early detection and treatment, it may be possible to improve longevity and quality of life. This is why it is vitally important to pursue repeated testing for HIV if there is any reason to suspect coming into contact with the virus.



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