How long can HIV go undetected?
December 16, 2022
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How long can HIV go undetected?

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Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system, making it more vulnerable to infections. The virus is transmitted when the bodily fluids of an HIV-positive person (genital fluid, blood, semen, or breastmilk) get into the bloodstream of a HIV-negative person. This means HIV is usually spread through small tears in the genitals that occur during vaginal or anal sex, contact with used needles, or from mother to infant (Stanford Medicine). Most people experience a brief flu-like illness shortly after contracting HIV. Following this, HIV often causes no symptoms for years, meaning many people may have the virus without knowing it. But how long can HIV go undetected, and what symptoms should you look for? 

How long does it take for symptoms of HIV to occur?

HIV has three stages of infection, each with different symptoms. A long-term, untreated HIV infection can progress to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). By taking daily antiretroviral treatment (ART), most people living with HIV never develop AIDS.

Stage 1: Acute HIV infection 

Symptoms of acute HIV occur 2-6 weeks following an infection (NHS, 2021). If symptoms occur during this stage, they are flu-like and range in severity. It is also possible not to experience any symptoms at all. Symptoms of an acute HIV infection include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Rash
  • Muscle aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
  • Night sweats

Source: Mayo Clinic, 2022

Stage 2: Chronic HIV infection 

Chronic HIV is the second stage of HIV infection. There are often no symptoms during this stage, meaning the infection can go undetected for a long time. Chronic HIV can last more than 10 to 15 years before advancing to AIDS, though in some people it may advance faster (NIH, 2021). As the virus destroys immune cells, mild infections or chronic symptoms may occur, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Oral yeast infection (thrush)
  • Shingles
  • Pneumonia

Source: Mayo Clinic, 2022

Stage 3: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

This is the most severe stage of HIV. During AIDS, the immune system is severely damaged and is more at risk for life-threatening infections and illnesses. These illnesses usually do not affect people with healthy immune systems, and are called opportunistic infections or opportunistic cancers. Signs of these infections may include:

  • Persistent, unexplained fatigue
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sweats
  • Chills
  • Spots or lesions in the mouth that do not disappear
  • Recurring fever
  • Weight loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin rashes, lesions, or bumps

Source: Mayo Clinic, 2022

Access to ART has dramatically reduced the number of HIV-positive people that develop AIDS. By staying on ART and taking it correctly, most people living with HIV can live a full life without ever progressing to AIDS.

Can you have HIV without symptoms?

Yes- during acute HIV, some people have no symptoms at all or have symptoms that can be confused with another illness. People with chronic HIV may not experience any symptoms for years. The most reliable way to know if you have HIV is by getting a blood test. You can get tested for HIV at your GP, at a sexual health clinic, or using a home test. Homed-IQ’s home STI tests include a fourth-generation test for HIV. This laboratory test can detect HIV 18-45 days after exposure (CDC, 2022). 

How long can HIV go undetected?

The first symptoms of HIV usually appear 2 to 6 weeks after infection. As these symptoms don’t point directly to HIV, many people think they just have a cold or flu. Some people may have no symptoms at all in this stage, meaning their infection will be asymptomatic until the immune system is severely impacted months or years in the future. This means that HIV can go detected for years. Routine testing for HIV can help catch asymptomatic infections earlier, allowing people to get on treatment faster and stay healthy. It is important to test for STIs for both women and men.

Stay healthy and get tested

Since HIV can have little to no symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage, regular testing can help detect infections earlier. The sooner you are diagnosed and can start treatment, the better. While HIV cannot be cured, taking treatment correctly every day can mean the amount of HIV in the blood falls to undetectable levels (CDC, 2022). This means there is no risk of passing the virus to others, such as during sex.

You should consider getting tested if:

  • You have had unprotected sex
  • You have a new sexual partner or are having sex with someone whom you do not know their sexual history
  • You have symptoms of an STI
  • You have shared needles, syringes, or other injection drug equipment
  • You’ve had anal or vaginal sex with someone who has HIV
  • You’ve been diagnosed with another STI

Source: CDC, 2022

Homed-IQ’s STI Test Complete and STI Test Comprehensive are certified laboratory tests that check for HIV and other common sexually transmitted infections. All Homed-IQ tests are completely anonymous and can easily be done from home.

Sources:

Getting Tested | Testing | HIV Basics | HIV/AIDS | CDC. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/hiv-testing/getting-tested.html

HIV Treatment as Prevention | HIV Risk and Prevention | HIV/AIDS | CDC. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/art/index.html

HIV/AIDS – Symptoms and causes. (2022, July 29). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hiv-aids/symptoms-causes/syc-20373524

National Institutes for Health. (n.d.). The Stages of HIV Infection | NIH. HIVinfo. https://hivinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv/fact-sheets/stages-hiv-infection

NHS website. (2021, November 18). Symptoms. nhs.uk. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/symptoms/

Stanford Medicine. (n.d.). Transmission of HIV/AIDS. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/sexual-and-reproductive-health/hiv-aids/causes.html

About the author

Lauren Dobischok

Lauren is a health scientist and science communicator living in the Netherlands. With a background in epidemiology, her goal is to create accurate scientific content that is easy to understand and empowers people to make informed decisions. Her favourite topics to discuss are public health, infectious diseases, and dispelling myths and misconceptions about health topics with research. Coming from Canada, Lauren prefers to spend her free time learning Dutch and exploring the interesting sights this small country has to offer!