Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the immune system, leaving it unable to fight infections. The infection can remain latent and inactive for many years without producing any symptoms. However, without treatment, HIV makes the body vulnerable to infections it would otherwise have been able to ward off. Left unchecked, the virus can advance to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. For this reason, it is essential to be alert to the first signs of HIV, to receive treatment as early as possible.
Within a month of contracting HIV, 40 to 90 percent of infected individuals develop flu-like symptoms or acute retroviral syndrome (ARS). Most develop a fever of no more than 102 degrees Fahrenheit. The fever typically lasts for a few days and subsides completely within two weeks in most cases.
Many newly-infected people have a sore throat, which often leads physicians to mistake the early stages of HIV for an upper respiratory infection. People who have taken part in high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sex or sharing an intravenous needle in the weeks before a sore throat began should let a doctor know they should be tested for HIV.
During the early stages of HIV, muscle and joint pain is common because the virus is spreading throughout the body and multiplying rapidly. Although these aches and pains can develop all over, they may be quite subtle. In many cases, people do not take notice of this symptom, simply assuming they have been sleeping in an awkward position or not getting enough rest.
The lymph nodes in the armpit, groin, and neck typically swell up temporarily after contracting HIV. This happens because the lymph nodes are part of the immune system and are responding to local or systemic infection.
Many patients infected with HIV develop skin rashes, typically on the trunk, face, and limbs. In Caucasian people, this rash appears as flat or slightly raised red spots or bumps. In darker-skinned individuals, the bumps may be a shade of purple.
Anywhere between 30 and 60 percent of individuals infected with HIV experience short-term nausea and vomiting in the early stages of the disease. These symptoms may cause an undiagnosed HIV infection to be mistaken for an infection of the gastrointestinal tract unless doctors also consider other symptoms as they develop.
In both the early and advanced stages of HIV, people often experience loose bowel movements. Diarrhea that is difficult to control with over-the-counter or prescription medications may be an indication of the early stages of HIV infection. In the later stages, diarrhea is likely due to other infections or illnesses the individual contracts due to their compromised immune system.
Rapid and sustained weight loss is common in the later stages of an HIV infection, a consequence of unrelenting diarrhea and loss of appetite. This symptom may also signal that the immune system is highly compromised. Though many HIV patients experience weight loss in the later stages, recent developments in antiviral therapy can reduce the severity of this side effect.
A majority of people with HIV infections experience changes to their nails. In the advanced stages of the disease, the quality of the nails begins to deteriorate; they may thicken and curl, split easily, or acquire black or brown lines over the surface. Fungal infections that the body cannot fight off with a compromised immune system may be the cause.
Nearly half of HIV patients report severe night sweats throughout all stages of the infection. The sweating occurs independently of the ambient temperature and the person's current physical exertion. In most cases, night sweating is so severe that it soaks clothes and bed sheets. Unlike some symptoms that people may overlook, this serious sign of illness is generally noticed and prompts medical attention eventually.
Many HIV patients develop oral or genital herpes during their illness, and some develop both. Oral herpes presents as form of cold sores, painful blisters on and around the lips. Herpes outbreaks in HIV patients tend to be quite severe due to the weakened immune system. In some cases, herpes is a pre-existing condition that causes the immune vulnerability leading to a subsequent HIV infection.
In all stages of HIV infection, patients complain of general malaise, weakness, and fatigue because the body's energy reserves are depleted as the immune system struggles to stave off multiple infections. Over time, this monumental effort can be quite draining, resulting in the fatigue that is a widly recognized symptom of the condition.
An advanced HIV infection may lead to cognitive problems, including HIV-induced dementia in severe cases. While this extreme symptom is relatively uncommon, many patients develop milder symptoms such as mental confusion, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and a general lack of awareness of their surroundings.
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