HIV is a virus that weakens the immune system. Left untreated, HIV makes the body more susceptible to infections and diseases. If HIV continues to progress, it can develop into a more severe state of AIDS, when the immune system is highly compromised. (Here’s more information about how HIV and AIDS affect the body.)
HIV has three stages. Symptoms of HIV you experience vary by stage.
The first stage is acute HIV infection. During this stage, the virus is rapidly attacking the body’s T-cells, according to hematologist Jeffrey Laurence, MD, of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. As the body attempts to fight back, 40 to 90 percent of patients will experience flu-like symptoms, including high fever and muscle and joint pain, as well as headaches, diarrhea, sore throat, and skin lesions. These early HIV symptoms usually appear one to two weeks after exposure and last three or four weeks. Keep in mind that not everyone with HIV will develop these early-stage symptoms, however.
The second stage of HIV is called clinical latency. During this HIV stage, the reproduction of the virus slows down and those early HIV symptoms subside, but HIV is still active. This stage can last for years or even decades. In fact, in the United States today, most people with HIV never go on to develop AIDS. The life expectancy for HIV patients is nearly identical to that of people without HIV as long as they adhere to to their medication regimens. Patients in this phase may not experience any obvious HIV symptoms, but they are still able to transmit HIV to others. During this time, a patient with HIV is more susceptible to “opportunistic illnesses,” such as cancers, infections, pneumonia, yeast infections, and more.
The third stage of HIV is AIDS. This diagnosis is made when a patient’s T cell count drops below 200. Once patients have progressed to the AIDS stage, their life expectancy is around three years without treatment, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
If you notice severe, unexplained flu-like symptoms that last multiple weeks—especially if you have recently engaged in high-risk sex or shared needles—it is crucial to get an HIV test as soon as possible, and—if necessary—begin treatment for HIV.