December 10, 2022
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What are the early signs of HIV?

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An early-stage HIV infection can cause varying symptoms, depending on the individual. Do you think you may have HIV, or are you experiencing symptoms?  In this article we will discuss the causes of HIV, what early symptoms may look like, how to prevent an infection, and how to get tested, such as with Homed-IQ’s home HIV tests.

What is HIV and how can it be transmitted?

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks and weakens the immune system by destroying infection-fighting CD4 cells. Without treatment, HIV can progress to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) (RIVM, 2022). AIDS can be a life-threatening condition, which is why detecting HIV infections and starting treatment is important. 

HIV is only transmitted through infected body fluids, such as blood, genital secretions, and breast milk. You can only become infected with HIV if body fluids containing the virus enter your bloodstream, such as through unprotected sex or through a contaminated needle. This means that HIV cannot be transmitted through hugging, saliva, sharing dishes, or sharing toilets. It is also possible for mothers to pass HIV to their baby through pregnancy, breastfeeding, or childbirth, but this is rare in Western Europe because all pregnant women are screened for HIV and receive treatment if needed (SOA AIDS Netherlands, 2021).

How long is the incubation period of HIV?

An HIV infection consists of three stages, each with different symptoms:

  1. Acute HIV Infection: this is the earliest stage of an HIV infection and has an incubation period of 2 to 4 weeks after being infected. During an acute HIV infection, HIV multiplies rapidly and is present in the blood at very high levels.
  2. Chronic HIV Infection: during this stage of infection, HIV continues to multiply in the body at low levels. Individuals with a chronic HIV infection may not have any symptoms, and can remain in this stage of infection for ten years or longer. People who take antiretroviral treatment (ART) for HIV can remain in this stage for life. If ART is taken correctly, the amount of HIV in the blood can fall to undetectable levels. This means an individual with HIV has virtually no risk of transmitting the virus to others, even during unprotected sex.
  3. AIDS: in the final stage of an HIV infection, HIV has damaged the immune system so severely that it cannot fight off opportunistic infections. These infections occur more often in people with weakened immune systems. People with AIDS have a high amount of HIV in their blood and a low number of CD4 cells. While AIDS is a life-threatening condition, many people with HIV never reach this stage due to the availability of ART medication.

What are the signs and symptoms of an acute HIV infection?

The symptoms of an acute HIV infection can vary, and some people may not experience any symptoms at all. Symptoms usually appear within the first two months of infection, and resemble a flu-like illness. Common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache 
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle Aches
  • Skin rash 
  • Diarrhea
  • Dry throat/cough 
  • Night sweats

How to prevent an HIV infection

Today, there are many ways to prevent HIV, live well with HIV, and access testing.

Practice safe sex

To prevent getting HIV during sex, make sure you use condoms correctly every time you have vaginal or anal sex. Consider using lubricants to prevent condoms from breaking during sex, and be sure to clean any sex toys well or to use them with a condom. If your partner has HIV, encourage them to get and stay in treatment (CDC, 2022).

Get tested regularly

The only way to know for sure whether you are infected with HIV is to get tested. Learning your HIV status allows you to begin treatment earlier and limit the health effects of HIV. It also prevents transmitting HIV to others, as many people have no symptoms in early stages of infection. You can get tested at your GP, a sexual health clinic, or simply and anonymously at home, such as with Homed-IQ’s STI Test Comprehensive.

Use PrEP

Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP is a medication that can be taken to prevent HIV. When taken as prescribed, PrEP is highly effective at preventing HIV. PrEP is available for certain risk groups from sexual health clinics or GPs.

Use clean needles

To prevent HIV, it is important to use clean needles and never to share with others. People who use drugs in certain countries may be able to exchange their used syringes for clean ones in order to reduce the risk of HIV and other blood-borne infections. If you are accidentally exposed to an unclean needle, seek medical attention immediately. Medication can be administered that can prevent an HIV infection from occurring, even if you were exposed.

Screen for HIV in pregnancy

Screening for HIV during pregnancy is important and effective at preventing transmission of the virus from mother to child. HIV can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. To prevent HIV from being transmitted to the baby, all pregnant women in many countries are tested for HIV and provided treatment if needed.

What are the possible consequences of an HIV infection?

If HIV is not treated, it can progress to AIDS. During AIDS, the body is vulnerable to opportunistic infections that can eventually lead to death. Opportunistic infections include certain cancers, fungal infections, parasites, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. Starting ART and remaining on it is essential to preventing AIDS and opportunistic infections. 

In summary, an early-stage HIV infection can occur with or without symptoms. Most often, early symptoms of HIV resemble the flu. It is important to be aware of how HIV is transmitted and what activities are risky in order to prevent an infection. One of the most effective ways to prevent HIV transmission is to regularly test for HIV or other STIs. Homed-IQ offers a wide range of sexual health tests that can be taken completely anonymously and can determine a possible infection. Not sure which test you need? Then use our test guide!

Sources

(n.d.). Hiv-infectie voorkomen. Aidsfonds. https://aidsfonds.nl/over-hiv-aids/wat-zijn-hiv-en-aids/hiv-infectie-voorkomen/

Hiv | RIVM. (n.d.). https://www.rivm.nl/hiv

Protect Yourself During Sex | Prevention | HIV Basics | HIV/AIDS | CDC. (2022, May 31). https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/hiv-prevention/protect-yourself-during-sex.html

soa Aids Nederland. (2021, 14 oktober). Symptomen van hiv. https://www.soaaids.nl/nl/alle-soas/hiv/symptomen

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!