What are the symptoms of HIV?

Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos

Medically reviewed by

Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos

Last reviewed: 17 Mar 2019

The different stages of HIV

Young asian girl seated outside researching symptoms of hiv on her phone

Key takeaways

  • HIV progresses in three distinct phases, each with very different symptoms

  • Acute HIV Symptoms appear flu-like

  • Early HIV Symptoms can include slightly swollen lymph nodes

  • Late-Stage Symptoms of HIV include weight loss, dry cough, night sweats, cold sores, weakness and confusion or difficulty concentrating

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a retrovirus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). It is an incurable disease that leads to progressive failure of the immune system. With a failed immune system, it leaves you susceptible to other illnesses like pneumonia or cancer.

Signs and symptoms of HIV depend on the stage of infection, and can range from flu-like symptoms early on, to depression, weight loss and fatigue if left untreated.

Early treatment allows HIV patients to lead a normal life. If you have had unprotected sex with a partner who could have HIV, you should get tested. You can use a home HIV test or visit your local doctor.

What do I need to know about HIV symptoms?

HIV progresses in three distinct phases, each with very different symptoms:

1. Acute Infection - When an individual is first infected with HIV, they can experience an acute flu-like illness. The HIV virus is most contagious during this phase.

2. Clinical Latency - After this, the infection usually becomes asymptomatic for many years (up to ten) while it replicates within the lymph nodes and begins to attack the immune system.

3. Late Stage - After the immune system is sufficiently weakened, you may start to experience some constitutional symptoms (such as fatigue, weight loss and night sweats) that affect your body as a whole, rather than individual organs.

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Acute HIV symptoms: flu

Within 4 to 6 weeks of HIV entering the body, 80% of people will experience a short, flu-like illness sometimes called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS). This is your immune system putting up an initial fight against the virus and it can last for up to a month.

Early HIV symptoms: rash

An important symptom of HIV is a dark skin rash that may develop on the face, hands, feet and/or torso. Learn more about HIV rashes.

After the acute illness has passed, HIV often doesn't cause any major symptoms for the following 10 years or longer.

You may feel perfectly healthy, with slightly swollen lymph nodes (glands) being one of the only signs of HIV during this stage of the infection.

Late-stage symptoms of HIV

As HIV advances into its later stages, your body's immune system is weakened and you may start experiencing other infections, which may result in the following symptoms:

  • Weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Night sweats
  • Fungal nail infection
  • Yeast infection
  • Cold sores
  • Confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • Weakness and numbness

HIV symptoms: weight loss

HIV wasting syndrome is a common sign of HIV, particularly in cases of advanced HIV infection. It is diagnosed if someone has unintentionally lost more than 10% of their body weight.

This occurs due to:

  • Loss of appetite due to nausea
  • Low dietary intake caused by ulcers of the mouth or oesophagus which make eating difficult
  • Losing nutrients through diarrhoea, vomiting or poor absorption of nutrients in the intestine

Late-stage symptoms of HIV: dry cough

A persistent dry cough that gets worse over time and doesn't respond to benadryl, antibiotics or inhalers can be the sign of a late-stage HIV infection.

A cough or shortness of breath could be a sign of bacterial pneumonia or pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP).

Symptoms of bacterial pneumonia:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • A cough producing yellow or green sputum

Symptoms of PCP:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss

Late-stage symptoms of HIV: night sweats

50% of HIV positive people experience 'night sweats' that are not related to either exercise or room temperature.

HIV-related night sweats occur primarily when sleeping, and can soak through bedclothes, sheets and blankets.

Late-stage symptoms of HIV: fungal nail infections

Patients with advanced HIV viruses will be more susceptible to fungal infections. Look out for:

  • thickening
  • curving
  • splitting
  • and discolouration of the nail

Late-stage symptoms of HIV: thrush

A common symptom of HIV, particularly a late-stage HIV infection, is thrush in the mouth or throat. Symptoms of oral thrush are:

  • White, cream-coloured or yellow spots in the mouth that may be slightly raised. If you scrape off these spots they will leave small, painless wounds that bleed slightly
  • A burning sensation in the mouth and throat
  • Difficulty swallowing

Late-stage HIV symptoms: confusion or difficulty concentrating

Cognitive malfunctions could hint at HIV-related dementia which usually occurs later on, after the HIV virus has progressed.

Also be aware of:

  • Lack of short term memory
  • Frequent anger or irritability
  • Depression
  • Deterioration or motor skills (clumsiness, lack of coordination or problems with tasks such as sewing or writing by hand)

Late-stage HIV symptoms: weakness and tingling

The HIV virus can cause numbness and tingling of the hands and feet, also known as peripheral neuropathy.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy are:

  • Pins and needles of the hands and feet
  • Burning pains in feet, legs, hands and arms
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Sharp stabbing pains that are often worse at night
  • Numbness and a reduced ability to feel pain or changes in temperature, especially in feet

What to do if you notice symptoms

If you start to notice any possible HIV symptoms you should get yourself tested at once. There is currently no known cure for HIV, but HIV can very effectively be treated with retroviral medication.

HIV tests are available from:

  • Your GP
  • GUM/ Sexual Health clinic
  • Specialist HIV clinics (e.g. Terrence Higgins)
  • Online

If you don't feel comfortable getting tested face-to-face, you can order a HIV testing-kit from our website. You can take a tiny blood sample from home and post it to our lab. We'll have your result within 2 days of your sample reaching the lab.

Medically reviewed by:
Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos Accreditations: MBBS, BSc

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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