People with HIV may have a short illness soon after getting the virus, but can then feel well for a long time. Most people will only notice further symptoms of HIV after a few years.
What is a ‘seroconversion illness’?
Up to six weeks after getting HIV many people experience a short one or two week illness called a seroconversion illness.
It's a sign that their immune system is reacting to the presence of the virus in their body.
Seroconversion is also the point at which the body produces antibodies to HIV. Once seroconversion has happened, an HIV test will detect antibodies and give a positive result.
Seroconversion illness happens to most (but not all) recently infected people. It can be severe enough to put someone in hospital or so mild that it's mistaken for something like flu (although a blocked or runny nose is not usually a symptom).
The most common symptoms of seroconversion are:
- sore throat
- rash over the body
These could be signs of a harmless infection but two or more of these together within six weeks of unprotected sex could be a sign that you now have HIV.
Some people with HIV never get a seroconversion illness. So whether you notice symptoms or not, if you've taken a risk you should seriously consider testing and definitely use condoms until you test.
If you do have HIV, your body fluids (blood, semen and vaginal or anal secretions) are highly infectious during the early weeks and months after you first became infected. However, once you're on effective treatment and your viral load becomes undetectable you cannot pass on HIV.
Why does it take so long to get symptoms of later HIV-related illnesses?
People with HIV usually look or feel well for a number of years. They're not likely to feel ill or notice any symptoms during the first few years of their infection.
All the same, over time the virus attacks their body, causing a drop in their CD4 cells (or T cells - blood cells that play a role in your body fighting off infections).
It can take many years for the level of CD4 cells to fall to a point at which illnesses are noticed.
What are the symptoms of later HIV-related illnesses?
As HIV weakens someone’s immune system and their CD4 count drops, they may experience signs of other illnesses:
- weight loss
- night sweats
- thrush in the mouth
- an increase in herpes or cold sore outbreaks
- swollen glands in the groin, neck or armpit
- long lasting diarrhoea
But remember, people who don’t have HIV can also get any of these; they can be the signs of other illnesses.
A weakened immune system may leave someone more open to serious infections such as:
What can HIV treatment do?
In a nutshell, HIV treatment keeps you healthy so you can live a normal lifespan, and can reduce your viral load to undetectable levels so you won't be able to pass on HIV.
National guidelines recommend that everyone with HIV starts treatment when they're diagnosed, regardless of their CD4 count. This is because a study called START found that delaying treatment until your CD4 count drops to 350 - which is when people were previously advised to start treatment - led to a significantly higher chance of developing AIDS-related illnesses such as cancers.
Being on effective treatment should lead to your viral load becoming undetectable - which means you cannot pass on HIV.
What should I do if I think I could have HIV?
Only an HIV test can tell you whether you have HIV.
Try not to guess based on any symptoms you may or may not have. Try not to guess based on the HIV status of a person you have had sex with.
If you test, tell whoever tests you if you’ve recently taken risks or had symptoms similar to seroconversion illness, as this will affect the kind of HIV test you should have.
To be on the safe side, and until you know your test result, use condoms to protect anyone you have sex with.
Testing for HIV ››
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