The progress of HIV-disease can be seen along a predictable time-line, with a total of four different groups of symptoms for infection in adults. However, it is important to remember that these are only averages and that there is no way to know how any one individual will progress through HIV-disease. The disease also progresses differently in children, with serious symptoms often developing much earlier.
During the first month after infection with HIV, many (though not all) people develop a flu-like illness. This time is known as acute HIV infection and these symptoms are known as seroconversion illness or HIV acute retroviral syndrome. Symptoms of this stage are caused by the immune system as it launches its first defense against HIV by developing antibodies. (Developing a detectable level of antibodies is a process known as seroconversion.)
Symptoms of this stage of HIV include fever, headache, aches and pains, sore throat, swollen lymph glands, fatigue, skin rash and digestive troubles, according to HIV-Symptoms.info. These symptoms are similar to those caused by any other viral infections. This means that HIV cannot be diagnosed on the basis of these symptoms alone, and individuals who believe they have been exposed to HIV should seek out testing.
HIV testing will be accurate only after seroconversion has taken place. This generally takes one month, but may take up to six. HIVTest.org can help individuals learn more about different types of HIV tests and locate testing centers; please see Resources section of this article.
0 Months-10 Years
After the symptoms of seroconversion illness clear, HIV-disease enters its asymptomatic stage. This is the longest stage of HIV, lasting for an average of 10 years. During this time, no symptoms are present.
Because of the mild nature of seroconversion illness symptoms and the long absence of symptoms in asymptomatic HIV-disease, many people unknowingly expose others to the virus during this time through unprotected sex or through sharing hypodermic needles. The correct and consistent use of condoms and using clean needles greatly reduces one's chances of contracting or transmitting HIV.
Third-stage HIV-disease, symptomatic HIV appears after asymptomatic HIV and lasts between one and three years. During this time, a chronic flu-like illness develops. Other symptoms, according to HIV-Symptoms.info, include night sweats, major weight loss, fungal infections as well as skin and breathing problems.
As HIV attacks the cells of the immune system, the immune system's ability to fight off infection is continually weakened. When the ability of the immune-system to fight off infection on its own (a capacity called cell-mediated immunity) is lost, AIDS is diagnosed in HIV-positive people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this occurs when CD4 (a type of cell targeted by HIV) cell count falls below 200 per cubic mL of blood or when these cells account for fewer than 14 percent of all immune cells.
AIDS is a syndrome, meaning that it is a group of conditions. These include opportunistic infections (OIs), continued severe weight loss (called wasting), cancers and neurological conditions.
Opportunistic infections, as their name suggests, take advantage of the weakened state of the immune system; they do not cause disease in people with healthy immune systems or cause worse symptoms in the immunocompromised (people with weakened immune systems). Common OIs include tuberculosis, herpesviruses, Pneumocystis pneumonia, thrush (an oral fungus) and toxoplasmosis (a brain disease caused by parasites).
Cancers found in AIDS include lymphomas and Kaposi's sarcoma. Kaposi's sarcoma is caused by opportunistic infection with human herpesvirus-8 and causes purple lesions on the skin. Lymphomas are cancers of lymphocytes, the same group of cells targeted by HIV.
There are many neurological conditions found in those living with AIDS, but the most significant of these is AIDS dementia complex (ADC), which, according to HIV InSite, can affect thinking, motion and behavior.
HIV-disease progresses differently in children than it does in adults. Some children become sick very early in life, while others do not experience symptoms until they are of school age. According to the Mayo Clinic, common HIV symptoms in children include problems with gaining weight and growing, difficulty in walking, mental impairment and becoming unusually sick with common childhood illnesses.