A teenage girl in bed with the back of her hand placed on top of her forehead.
The first signs of HIV include fever, headaches, and muscle pain.

What is Usually the First Sign of HIV?

For many decades (and still in many cultures), HIV was a taboo topic. This is because initially there was vast confusion over how HIV was spread. It was also linked to sex, which is one of the main forms of transmission. Yet, in the 1980s, HIV/AIDS became a worldwide epidemic. This might make you wonder: what is usually the first sign of HIV? We will get to that.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that over 70 million individuals have tested HIV positive and about 35 million of these individuals have died from HIV/AIDS. While today there is treatment available, knowing the signs can ensure you or someone you know gets treatment early on, which can help you manage this infection throughout your life.

What is HIV?

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. This virus attacks the immune system, which can eventually lead to AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS means your immune system has been severely damaged, leaving you highly susceptible to life-threatening illnesses and infection.

Surprisingly, HIV can last as long as 10 years without treatment before it leads to AIDS. However, getting tested regularly and early on is of the utmost importance to prevent the progression of HIV and prevent AIDS from occurring.

Symptoms of HIV

When first infected with HIV, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Swollen glands
  • Fever
  • Ulcers in the mouth, around the anus, or around the penis
  • Rash
  • Headaches
  • Joint and muscular pain

Usually, these symptoms last about a week or so. This often leads individuals to assume that they have a minor infection. However, if you or a friend experiences any of these symptoms, it’s important to get tested. Following these initial symptoms, you may also experience swollen glands on and off for the next few years.

As time goes on, these symptoms may worsen. After a few years, symptoms may involve diarrhea, weight loss, increased infections, and more severe infections. Eventually, if left untreated, this will lead to AIDS. Yet, with HIV medication, this infection will not move onto this later stage.

HIV Causes

HIV spreads through body fluids, including blood and vaginal fluids or semen. When these body fluids enter another person’s body, such as through sex or needle-sharing, they become infected.

Additionally, HIV can be passed on from mother to child in-utero, during childbirth, or via breastfeeding.

During the 1980s, the fear was that even simply touching someone with HIV could spread infection. However, this is not the case. HIV is not spread through feces, urine, vomit, coughing, sneezing, holding hands, or sharing glasses.

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Risk Factors

Preventing HIV and other transmissible diseases and infections comes down to protecting yourself, such as using condoms during sex or using sterile needles.

Those who are more at risk of HIV include:

  • Individuals having unprotected anal or vaginal sex
  • Individuals who have other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, herpes, gonorrhea, or chlamydia
  • Individuals who choose to use contaminated or shared needles to take drugs
  • Individuals who receive unsterile injections
  • Individuals who are exposed to unsterile needles and accidentally experience a needle stick injury

Getting tested if you are unsure is of the utmost importance for your own health and for the health of any sexual partners. Rapid diagnostic tests can even deliver results within the same day.

HIV Treatment

HIV is treated via antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. While this does not cure the virus, it does suppress the replication of it within a person’s body. In turn, this allows your immune system to recover to restore its capacity to combat other infections or illnesses. Usually, ARV drugs are recommended for life — no matter your age.

Typically, these drugs begin to work within six months of initial treatment onset. Yet, it is important to note that they do not prevent the spread of HIV. Thus, protection methods during sex or with needles are still highly recommended.

If treatment is delayed, HIV will continue to wreak havoc on your immune system, which puts you at a higher risk of developing AIDS.

These ARV drugs work to suppress the virus by reducing your viral load and keeping your CD4 cell (an important white blood cell for immunity) count up.

In fact, these drugs can reduce the viral load so significantly that HIV may no longer be detected through regular testing. When this is noticeable, it means the drugs are working their magic!

Yet, the miracle of these drugs comes down to taking them consistently. Skipping these medications, even just once or twice, may give way to HIV multiplying within the body. Ultimately, any pause in medication can lead to a weakened immune system and an increased chance of you becoming sick.

At the same time, there are some side effects of these drugs, such as nausea, trouble sleeping, dry mouth, headaches, rash, dizziness, fatigue, and more. If you experience any of these side effects, ensure you talk with your doctor. They can prescribe other medication to help manage these side effects and improve your quality of life.