Before doctors and scientists knew what HIV/AIDS was, what caused it, and how the disease was transmitted, they began noticing a rising trend of symptoms normally associated with immunocompromised conditions in communities of gay men.
Eventually, these came to be known as opportunistic infections -- symptoms of AIDS and signs that a patient is losing the battle against the virus. But it wasn’t until much later in the epidemic and investigation process that researchers became fully aware of the long life-cycle of the virus before any of these symptoms appear.
Let’s start at the beginning.
As mentioned in the previous article, HIV/AIDS are what is called a lentivirus -- a slow-acting virus with a period of latency that allows it to hide, undetected or ignored, for a long time in your blood. It is hard to conceptualize a killer disease with no symptoms, but at least at first, this is what HIV is.
Immediately after infection, you are unlikely to experience any symptoms or feelings of sickness at all. This is one of the factors that made it difficult for researchers in the 1980s to identify the disease’s mode of transmission.
Moreover, it is one of the things that continues to make HIV so dangerous -- someone who seems to be healthy may actually be carrying the virus! And unless you are only engaging in sexual activity with one person (and they are also practicing monogamy) it can be difficult to know exactly who gave you the disease.
THIS IS WHY IT IS CRUCIAL TO USE PROTECTION EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU HAVE SEX WITH A NEW PARTNER.
About 4 to 6 weeks after you are infected, you may experience some light flu-like symptoms. These include a fever, headache, sore throat, rash, swollen lymph glands, or feeling tired and generally achy. Often, these vague complaints go unnoticed, or they are attributed to some other common illness or stress.
After this point, the HIV virus goes into hiding and you can live for up to 10 years without any adverse medical effects or indication that you are sick. But you CAN still transmit the disease to others. And you ARE still sick.
Throughout this window period of latency, HIV tests are likely to come back negative. It isn’t until 6-12 weeks after the initial infection that your blood will test positive for the HIV antibodies, indicating that you have the virus. Therefore, it is important to get tested regularly, especially if you think you may have come in contact with infected fluids or needles.
It can take years, but as the virus multiplies quietly and the disease progresses, you may begin to notice swollen lymph nodes (one of the first signs of HIV), chronic diarrhea, weight loss, fever or cough and shortness of breath.
Untreated, this HIV is likely to become AIDS in roughly 10 years. If you are able to access medication and care, it is possible to live relatively symptom-free for decades.
(Though it should be noted: the antiretroviral treatment has a difficult and complicated regimen and the virus often develops resistance to different drugs in the cocktail. The belief that because a treatment exists, it is okay to not use protection or take risks with your sexual health is FALSE.)
Eventually, when your immune system is so decimated that you are susceptible to the opportunistic infections mentioned in the beginning of this article, you will have developed full-blown AIDS. These are diseases that would never bother you if you had a healthy immune system.
Some of the symptoms of these infections include night sweats, fever and chills, chronic diarrhea, cough and shortness of breath, weight loss (for many years, the syndrome was referred to as The Wasting Disease in many African countries, due to the amount of weight lost by a victim), body and head aches, blurred vision, skin rashes or bumps, and white patches on your tongue. As AIDS progresses further, patients may also experience pneumonia, tuberculosis, herpes, other viral conditions and certain cancers -- most commonly Kaposi's sarcoma.
Not a pretty picture, but definitely a preventable one. As I said previously, HIV/AIDS is a far more complex issue than a listing of symptoms or a description of causes can indicate. The epidemic and the diseases itself has immense implications and impacts for the world’s social, economic and political systems, for issues of gender and human rights, for international cooperation and inequality.
Symptoms are only a tip on the iceberg (and often a submerged tip, at that), so know your status, do your own research and ask questions below!
“Aids Symptoms: Detailed Information About AIDS Symptoms and HIV Infection.” (2011) . Retrieved 25, Sept. 2011.
AVERT. (2011) “HIV and AIDS in America.” AVERTing HIV and AIDS. Retrieved 25, Sept. 2011.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (August, 2011) “HIV/AIDS: Symptoms.” Retrieved 25, Sept. 2011.
Reviewed September 26, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith