There are many rumours and myths out there about HIV and how it can affect those who have it. Gary Carpenter, clinical director of BioSure, cuts through the noise to answer the burning questions about the symptoms of HIV and what to do if you think there’s a chance you could be HIV positive.
How do I know if I have HIV?Most people who acquire HIV are totally unaware of the infection. The symptoms of HIV vary from person to person and also vary by stage of the disease. For most people, the symptoms are very benign and do not require medical attention by themselves. The only way you can be sure if you are HIV positive is to take an HIV test or speak to your GP.
What are the symptoms of HIV?
Early Stage Symptoms
Most people who are infected with HIV experience a short, flu-like illness that occurs two to six weeks after infection. After this, HIV often causes no symptoms for several years making the infection very difficult to detect.
The flu-like illness that often occurs a few weeks after HIV infection is also known as seroconversion illness. This is caused by the body’s natural reaction to infection. It's probable that about three-quarters of people newly infected with HIV experience this illness. But most of these people assume that the symptoms are the consequence of a common cold or flu.
The most common symptoms are:
- fever (raised temperature)
- sore throat
- and a rash on the chest
However, other symptoms can include:
- joint pain
- muscle pain
- swollen glands (nodes)
The symptoms usually last between one and two weeks but can last longer.
During this period the HIV virus undergoes rapid replication and begins its spread through the body. It is during this acute HIV infection period that a person is most likely to pass on the virus to other people.
After these initial “acute” symptoms subside, HIV will often not cause any further symptoms for many years. But during this time, known as asymptomatic HIV infection, the virus continues to be active and causes progressive damage to your immune system. This phase lasts for about 10 years, during which time you will feel and appear well. But the virus will attack and damage your immune system until the immune system is so badly damaged that the body is rendered unable to fight almost any infection.
Once the immune system becomes severely damaged symptoms can include:
- weight loss
- chronic diarrhoea
- night sweats
- skin problems
- recurrent infections
- serious life-threatening illnesses
Late-stage HIV infection
If HIV is undiagnosed and goes untreated for a long period of time, the virus can cause a lot of damage to your immune system and you may become ill from very serious infections and cancers. At this stage, you may be given a diagnosis of AIDS. It is also at this stage, that even infections, such as the flu, which would not normally cause serious illness, can become fatal.
In fact, it is still the case that many people only have their HIV infection diagnosed as a consequence of being diagnosed with another illness.
It is estimated that 25,000 people are living in the UK with HIV but are unaware of the infection.
What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
AIDS is not considered to be a disease, but a syndrome. It is a collection of different signs and symptoms, all caused by the same virus, HIV. So you cannot “catch” AIDS. AIDS is a consequence of a long-standing, untreated, HIV infection. An AIDS diagnosis is usually based on the presence of certain illnesses.
So, how can I tell if I have HIV?
If you do not experience or notice the symptoms associated with acute HIV infection it is virtually impossible to detect HIV infection without undergoing a test specific for HIV. In the UK there are a number of options for accessing an HIV test.
Most HIV tests involve taking a blood sample which is then sent off to a laboratory for testing, but you can also get rapid tests which use a finger-prick blood or saliva sample. Rapid tests (using a pin-prick or saliva sample) can return results in less than 15 minutes. If you have a blood test which is then sent for laboratory tests, the results can take up to two weeks but are very often available sooner. These tests are predominantly provided by healthcare professionals, in sexual health clinics.
You can now also take an HIV self-test. This test will give a result straight away like a home pregnancy test.
The Biosure HIV Self Test (the only approved self-test in the UK) is 99.7% accurate (if used correctly) and has four quick, simple steps - getting a single small drop of blood; applying the blood to the test device; operating the test, and reading the result.
Remember that if you take a test and it is positive, you should visit your local sexual health clinic or GP to have it confirmed and to be given further advice, information and treatment. With advances in antiretroviral drugs, most people who are diagnosed with HIV can go on to live full and healthy lives. But the only way you can get this treatment is to be sure your HIV status by taking a test.
HIV: Three letters; NOT a sentence