HIV infection happens in three stages. Without treatment, it will get worse over time and eventually overwhelm your immune system.
First Stage: Acute HIV Infection
Most people don't know right away when they've been infected with HIV, but a short time later, they may have symptoms. This is when your body's immune system puts up a fight, typically within 2 to 6 weeks after you've gotten the virus. It's called acute retroviral syndrome or primary HIV infection.
The symptoms are similar to those of other viral illnesses, and they're often compared to the flu. They typically last a week or two and then completely go away. They include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Aching muscles
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- A red rash that doesn't itch, usually on your torso
Doctors can now prevent HIV from taking hold in your body if they act quickly. People who may have been infected -- for example, had unprotected sex with someone who is HIV-positive -- can take anti-HIV drugsto protect themselves. This is called PEP. But you must start the process within 72 hours of when you were exposed, and the medicines can have unpleasant side effects.
Second Stage: Chronic HIV Infection
After your immune system loses the battle with HIV, the flu-like symptoms will go away. Doctors may call this the asymptomatic or clinical latent period. Most people don't have symptoms you can see or feel. You may not realize you're infected and can pass HIV on to others. This stage can last 10 years or more.
During this time, untreated HIV will be killing CD4 T-cells and destroying your immune system. Your doctor can check how many you have with blood tests (normal counts are between 450 and 1,400 cells per microliter). As the number drops, you become vulnerable to other infections.
Fortunately, a combination, or "cocktail," of medications can help fight HIV, rebuild your immune system, and prevent spreading the virus. if you're taking medications and have healthy habits, your HIV infection may not progress further.
Third Stage: AIDS
AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV infection. This is usually when your CD4 T-cell number drops below 200. You can also be diagnosed with AIDS if you have an "AIDS defining illness" such as Kaposi's sarcoma (a form of skin cancer) or pneumocystis pneumonia (a lung disease).
If you didn't know you were infected with HIV earlier, you may realize it after you have some of these symptoms:
- Being tired all of the time
- Swollen lymph nodes in your neck or groin
- Fever that lasts for more than 10 days
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Purplish spots on your skin that don't go away
- Shortness of breath
- Severe, long-lasting diarrhea
- Yeast infections in your mouth, throat, or vagina
- Bruises or bleeding you can't explain
People with AIDS who don't take medication only survive about 3 years, even less if they get a dangerous infection. But with the right treatment and a healthy lifestyle, you can live a long time.