Currently in the U.S., more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV and 1 in 8 people are unaware. While targeted prevention efforts have worked to reduce the number of newly diagnosed cases each year, the HIV epidemic still remains as a priority for the CDC and other top health agencies.
You may wonder with so many people estimated to be living with the virus, why are 1 in 8 people unaware that they have it? Well, this can be attributed to the fact that a person infected with HIV can have little to no symptoms depending on what stage they are in.
Those who are newly infected with HIV may experience flu-like symptoms within as little as 2-4 weeks after the virus is contracted. On the other hand, some may not feel sick at all during this stage.
Flu-like symptoms can include:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Generalized fatigue
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth sores
These symptoms can last as little as a few days up to a few weeks. During this time the HIV infection may not even show up when it is tested for.
It is important to note, however, that just because someone doesn't have symptoms doesn't mean they aren't infectious and can't spread it on to others. Actually, those in the early stages of HIV are highly infectious and it is very easy for them to spread the infection to others.
While flu-like symptoms are known to accompany the HIV virus, you should not assume you have HIV just because you have any of these symptoms. Each of these can be caused by other illnesses, and some people can remain asymptomatic with the HIV virus for 10 years or more. The only way to know for sure is to get tested and know your status.
Clinical Latency Stage
After the early stages of the HIV infection, the disease moves into what is known as the clinical latency stage. Think of this stage as the chronic portion of the infection.
During this stage, the virus is still active but reproduces at a much slower rate than during the earlier stage. Most people infected with HIV will spend the majority of the disease’s lifespan in this stage, especially when receiving anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to treat HIV.
If left untreated, one may pass through this stage in a decade or less before the infection progresses to AIDS. Although the virus is reproduced at a much lower rate and one may not have symptoms, once again, they can still transmit HIV to others. Those who are treated with ART however, are much less likely to transmit HIV during this stage.
Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the final stage of the HIV infection. This is when your body’s immune system is severely weakened, allowing you to be susceptible to opportunistic infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis. These opportunistic infections can cause the majority of symptoms and illnesses you would experience while being infected with HIV.
When To Get Tested
With some people experiencing little to no symptoms after being infected with HIV, you should always get tested, especially if you think you have been exposed to the virus. The CDC recommends that persons at high risk for HIV infection should be screened at least once annually. This is true for patients in all health-care settings. Risk factors include having multiple partners, being a man who has sex with men, and not using a condom.
Most HIV tests are testing for antibodies that your body makes as a reaction to the presence of a virus.
For those of you who hate needles, there is a non-invasive form of the test, which is an oral swab, meaning that you do not need to give a blood sample. If this test is positive, you would require a follow-up confirmatory blood test which will look for the presence of the actual virus in your system, although it is highly likely by the first test that you have HIV.
It takes about 3 months for antibodies to develop to a large enough level in your system, so if you are testing too early you may not be able to detect them. If you test positive, it is important to talk with a healthcare provider who can link you to treatment options and other resources.
The HIV infection is no longer a death sentence and it is important to reduce the stigma associated with it. With many treatment options available, most HIV positive individuals are able to live relatively normal lives and have the same opportunities as they did prior to finding out that they had HIV.
The most important thing we can do is to spread the word about getting tested and make sure that we are doing our part to fight the stigma.