What is Primary HIV Infection?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 January 2020
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Primary HIV infection is the earliest stage of infection with the human immunodeficiency virus, before the patient has started to develop antibodies to the virus. This stage of HIV infection is also known as acute HIV infection, acute seroconversion disease, or acute retroviral syndrome. If patients can be accurately diagnosed during the primary stage of HIV infection, they can opt for a course of treatment which may delay the onset of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Patients experience primary HIV infection between the time that they are infected and the time that they seroconvert, a term used to describe the development of antibodies. During the primary stage of infection, the virus replicates at an extremely high rate, and patients can start to experience symptoms of infection. They are also capable of passing the virus on to others, which is one of the major dangers of primary HIV infection. If a patient receives a conventional HIV test during this phase it will be negative because no antibodies are present, and the patient may not realize that certain activities may put other people at risk of HIV infection.


Classically, patients develop a fever along with swollen lymph nodes. Rashes, headaches, joint pain, fatigue, and weight loss can also develop. Because these symptoms are vague and generalized a doctor may not realize that a patient has a primary HIV infection unless the patient is in a high risk group for HIV infection. This is one of the reasons why it is important for patients to be very detailed when discussing their histories with a doctor, to ensure that critical information is received by the doctor.

Presence of HIV in the body during the primary stage of infection can be detected with a test which looks for viral RNA. This test can be expensive and it is generally only recommended when a doctor strongly suspects that a patient has a primary HIV infection. Once the test results are received, the doctor and patient can discuss treatment options.

Studies have suggested that patients who experience severe symptoms during the primary stage of infection tend to progress to full blown AIDS more quickly than patients who experience minimal symptoms. Whether or not the symptoms are obvious, using antiretroviral therapy during primary HIV infection can help to preserve immune system function, which will keep the patient healthier longer. It can also keep a patient in a non-progressing stage, meaning that while the patient has HIV, he or she does not develop AIDS.



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