Early Stage Symptoms of HIV

Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos

Medically reviewed by

Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos

Last reviewed: 17 Mar 2019

Seroconversion Illness

Man wearing glasses sat outside looking up early symptoms of hiv on mobile phone

Key takeaways

  • Flu-like symptoms are an early sign of HIV infection. You should get tested if you get these symptoms after a possible exposure to HIV

  • Most people who become HIV positive don’t get any symptoms

  • If you get early symptoms of HIV they can last between 1 and 6 weeks

  • During this time you are much more likely to infect others with HIV through things like having unprotected sex

When you are first infected with HIV, you may experience a short 'flu-like' illness as your immune system attempts to fight the virus.

If you notice any of these early signs:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Tiredness
  • Diarrhoea
  • Joint pain or muscle pain
  • Swollen glands
  • Skin rash

and have recently put yourself at risk (either through unprotected sex or injecting drugs), you should get tested. You can order a HIV testing kit from our team of online doctors and learn your status within 2 days. However, some people who get infected with HIV won’t have any symptoms to begin with, so if you’re worried you may have been exposed to HIV, it’s always best to get tested.

What do I need to know about early HIV symptoms?

When the HIV virus first enters your body, you may experience a short 'flu-like' illness.

This is known as the 'seroconversion illness,' and it occurs because your blood is being converted from HIV negative to HIV positive by the production of antibodies.

Everybody infected with HIV will seroconvert at some stage, but only about 80% of patients will notice any symptoms.

Seroconversion usually occurs 1 - 3 weeks after infection, but could take up to 6 months.

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Common early symptoms – fever, chills, and sore throat

The most common early signs are 'flu like' symptoms that you'd expect from most 24-hour bugs.

You'll probably start with a high fever, chills and sweats which may be accompanied by a sore throat and mouth ulcers.

You may find it difficult to chew or eat, which can cause rapid weight loss.

You may develop a severe headache, have difficulty concentrating and feel weak and unsteady on your feet.

Swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes can appear early on in seroconversion and last for a few weeks or more. After disappearing, they will probably return later on in infection and last for 3 months or more.

Infected nodes usually appear in the neck, armpits and groin area.

They may be just slightly enlarged or even as large as golf balls during HIV infection. They are also usually tender and painful to touch.

Joint and muscle pain

People with this infection often complain about severe muscle/joint aches or stiffness. This, accompanied by recent HIV risk behaviour, could be a possible symptom of HIV.

Severe joint and muscle pain can add to any existing feelings of fatigue, leaving you feeling exhausted.

Face or body rash

Many people experience a 'maculopapular rash' (a flat, red skin rash that's covered in raised bumps) in the early stages of HIV infection.

The rash can appear anywhere on the body, but it will mostly be found on the face, chest and palms.

It will probably last for about 2-3 weeks and usually doesn’t cause any itching or irritation.

The rash may appear as ulcers in the mouth or on the genitals.

Learn more about HIV rashes.

Diarrhoea and vomiting

Diarrhoea and vomiting during seroconversion illness is rarer, but it's still an early sign of HIV infection.

How long do the early symptoms of HIV last?

It depends on the person. It can last from 1 - 6 weeks or it could not occur at all!

You might suffer intense initial symptoms for about a week, and then just feel severely fatigued for the rest of the month, or you might be experiencing symptoms all the way through.

What should I do if I notice symptoms?

If you do start noticing any of the early symptoms of HIV, and you have put yourself at risk of HIV infection then you need to get a HIV Test and see a doctor.

You need to wait for a sufficient number of antibodies to build up in your system for an accurate test result. This usually happens within the first 4 weeks for 95% of people, but can take up to 6 months.

You can ask your doctor for a viral load test (which will detect any HIV circulating in your bloodstream) but these are rarely used in HIV testing. These tests are very sensitive and have a tendency of showing up false-positives, so if you take the test and this happens to you, you will be referred for an HIV antibody test to confirm your status.

The 4th Generation (antigen/ antibody) test is the most commonly used HIV test in the UK. It can give an accurate result from 4 weeks after exposure.

Early HIV infection: high risk of infecting others

You are 20 times more contagious during acute HIV infection than you are during long-term infection.

This is because the viral load in your blood is far higher during seroconversion than it is at any other stage.

If you suspect you may be seroconverting, do not have unprotected sex (or engage in other high risk behaviour) with anyone during this time.

Medically reviewed by:
Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos

Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos graduated from the University of London in 2006. He did his postgraduate training in hospitals in the London area, and he trained for four years in Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery before completing his training in General practice in 2015.

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Last reviewed: 17 Mar 2019

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