Many people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) experience no symptoms, especially in the early stages of the infection. Over time, symptoms may emerge, and typically within eight to 15 years, the patient experiences full-blown acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Recognizing the symptoms of HIV can help people get treatment more quickly, which can lengthen the time between the onset of the infection and the development of AIDS.
Within six weeks to three months of infection, the body develops HIV antibodies, which can be revealed on a blood test. Some people experience flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, fever, rash, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes. Individuals who are at high risk for HIV infection should consider getting an HIV test if these symptoms emerge and do not resolve naturally within several days. IV drug users, people who have had unprotected sex, and health care workers are at especially high risk of contracting HIV.
In the later stages of infection, more serious symptoms of HIV appear. These symptoms of HIV indicate that the body is having difficulty fighting off the virus, and AIDS may not be far off. They can include exhaustion, easy bruising, lesions in the mouth and on the skin, weight loss, chronic yeast infections, night sweats, coughing, numbness, diarrhea, and a tingling sensation in the extremities. Patients are also at risk of developing opportunistic infections, because their immune systems have been weakened by the virus.
Everyone experiences different symptoms of HIV, which can sometimes make it challenging to recognize that HIV is the cause of ill health. Because HIV can often masquerade as a flu or other minor illness, doctors need to know if a patient has engaged in behavior which would put him or her at risk of HIV, as this will alter the doctor's approach to diagnosis and treatment. Information exchanged between a doctor and patient is confidential, so patients should not be shy about giving an accurate medical history.
If symptoms of HIV do emerge, a blood test can be used to determine whether or not the patient is infected with the virus. If signs of an infection are present, medications can be used to control the virus, delaying the onset of AIDS and more serious medical problems. These drugs are most effective when they are taken as early as possible, which is a good reason to receive routine HIV testing at least once a year. People in high risk categories may want to consider biannual testing.