By Medical Author: Shaziya Allarakha
By Medical Reviewer: Pallavi Uttekar
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a type of virus that attacks the immune system, thus lowering a person’s ability to resist or fight diseases and infections. About 1.2 million people had HIV infection in the United States at the end of 2019. Of these people, 13 percent did not know that they had the infection. In recent years, HIV has emerged as a global problem and continues to affect people of all ages.
HIV infection makes affected people vulnerable to several other infections and diseases, such as cancer. Presently, there is no cure for HIV; however, it can be well managed with medical treatment. If left untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Thus, early diagnosis of HIV is essential for effective management of HIV and preventing its progression to AIDS.
Initial signs and symptoms of HIV generally appear within two to four weeks of infection. This stage in which symptoms start appearing is called the acute HIV infection stage, or Acute Retroviral Syndrome (ARS). Symptoms appear because of resistance or fight of the immune system against HIV.
In the initial stage, the virus multiplies rapidly and spreads throughout the body. It targets and destroys the CD4 cells (a type of infection-fighting cells of the immune system). Consequently, the HIV level, called viral load, in the blood, and thus the risk of transmission, is very high in the initial phases. It is crucial if you recognize the early signs to seek medical help because early diagnosis and treatment of HIV has better outcomes. HIV treatment called antiretroviral treatment (ART) started at this stage gives maximum health benefits.
The initial presentation of HIV infection (ARS) is a flu-like illness with symptoms lasting for a few days or few weeks. Early symptoms may include:
Swollen lymph nodes (glands)
Presence of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have HIV. These symptoms may be seen in several other infections as well. Lymph nodes are a part of the body’s immune system that help get rid of bacteria and viruses. HIV infection, like many other infections, can cause inflammation of the lymph nodes that can be felt as round or nodular swellings in the armpit, groin and neck. Swelling is often associated with ache and pain in these areas. Swelling is not easily determined by patients and should be determined by a doctor.
Some people may not get any significant symptoms; however, the infection can spread from one person to another regardless of the presence or absence of symptoms.
The best strategy is to get tested for HIV if you think you have been exposed. Different tests are available for HIV. Advanced tests (called fourth-generation tests) can give accurate results within four weeks of the infection.
However, you must not wait for the window period to pass if you think you have been exposed. It is important to contact a health-care worker whenever there is a possible infection.
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