Last Updated on February 21, 2021 by Jenelle Marie Pierce, CSE, Executive Director
How to Spot Early HIV Symptoms
The earliest HIV symptoms — if you experience any at all — can be disguised as other common illnesses, making a new HIV infection difficult to detect. Early detection is essential, however, to avoid spreading the condition and to give a newly diagnosed person the best chance at successfully keeping AIDS at bay.
Unless you regularly get tested, consider the following symptoms a strong motivation to find out your HIV status.
Often occurring two weeks to two months after infection, the HIV early flu is described by many as ‘the worst flu ever.’ Muscle and joint aches, chills, fever, sore throat, headaches, and night sweats may hit hard but fade within a week.
Swollen lymph glands
Swollen glands, particularly on the neck, with or without pain are another early symptom of HIV infection.
Rash or mouth ulcers
One of the first signs of HIV infection, a rash, may only be a telltale symptom for those who are aware of its potential meaning. HIV rash can appear to be dermatitis or psoriasis and is often ignored when symptoms disappear within a few weeks. According to Healthline, HIV rash is often flat and red with small red bumps and considerable itching. These rashes range in severity and can also cause mouth ulcers.
According to the Mayo Clinic, fatigue is another common sign of early symptomatic HIV. This may be due to the body’s stress from fighting an infection; once infected with HIV, your immune system gears up to fight the virus and replace cells dying from infection, wearing down your energy.
Frequent or chronic cough or shortness of breath
As the infection progresses, little problems, like a seasonal cold or cough, may linger or become chronic annoyances.
Diarrhea or weight loss
Although diarrhea and weight loss are more frequently associated with AIDS, they can also affect some people after HIV infection.
Acting on HIV Symptoms: What Now?
If you have recognized some of your own symptoms on the above list, think carefully about your experiences over the past few months. Consider all sexual encounters, decisions regarding barrier contraception, injected drug use, accidental needle sticks, and other ways you may have come into contact with the blood or body fluid of another person.
All of those situations may place you at high risk of HIV infection, making it common sense to get tested soon and regularly if you continue to engage in those behaviors.
Even a single instance of a high-risk behavior can result in HIV infection. If you cannot remember whether you were in a high-risk situation over the past several months, do not shrug off the symptoms. Instead, get tested. Keep in mind, you may need another test after a short time, as HIV may take several months to reach the point at which most people will test positive for the virus.
Men who have sex with men, African Americans, and injection drug users are some of the most at-risk groups, but a large portion of the newly infected are heterosexual city dwellers.
During the time of early HIV symptoms, you are highly infectious. If you have engaged in any high-risk behaviors, you are at high risk of passing HIV on to sex partners as well. It is essential that you use barrier protection — even with a partner with whom you have lately become exclusive — until you know your HIV status.
Especially during flu season, it can be tempting to shrug off flu-like symptoms, a mild cough, a bit of fatigue, or a rash that disappears with hydrocortisone cream. If you have even the slightest suspicion that your symptoms are more than a passing common illness, or if you have not been recently tested, do the right thing: be your own best advocate, and get tested for HIV. Your life may depend on it.
Have you experienced symptoms and you’re uncertain if you should get tested? Were you recently tested but not sure where to go from there? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
I tested negative for HIV in mid October 2013 shortly after having unprotected sex which was late September possibly very early October. A few months pass by and in the very first week of February 2014 I experienced a flu like unless for 2 days which only occurred during night time. I had a fever and tremors/chills. Severe nausea however only threw up one time. I was very tired due to being up most of the night during this sickness. I also had neck pain and slightly swollen lymph nodes. I went to the doctor the next day and he thought it was just a flu virus going around (keep in mind I had already had a strain of the flu 2 weeks prior to this illness.) I had a follow up with my doc on Feb. 28 and tested a second time for HIV which again, came back negative. My question is should I test again to be safe? Or assuming I was positive, would antibodies have already built up to detectable levels due to the illness and time that has passed? Therefore meaning I am for sure negative and that whatever illness I experienced was not HIV? Please help!!
Hi Amanda –
Great question! As you tested the second time at about 4 months after possible exposure, your negative results are probably accurate. According to the CDC, most people infected with HIV will develop detectable antibodies within 25 days of exposure and 97% of people will have HIV antibodies by three months after exposure. However, you could always get tested again just to be sure, as a small percentage of those with HIV can test negative for up to 6 months or longer (depending upon the type of test given and their immune systems).
That said, the symptoms you’re describing could be something else entirely, like the common cold or flu, but they could be related to a different STI as well. So, if it were me, I’d probably go in one more time, and while there, get tested for a full panel of STDs (including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis). That way, you’re covering all of the bases.
Thanks for your question!