Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV, AIDS) (cont.)

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What happens after an exposure to the blood or genital secretions of an HIV-infected person?

The risk of HIV transmission occurring after any potential exposure to bodily fluids is poorly defined. The highest risk sexual activity, however, is thought to be receptive anal intercourse without a condom. In this case, the risk of infection may be as high as 3%-5% for each exposure. The risk is probably less for receptive vaginal intercourse without a condom and even less for oral sex without a latex barrier. Despite the fact that no single sexual exposure carries a high risk of contagion, HIV infection can occur after even one sexual event. Thus, people must always be diligent in protecting themselves from potential infection.

During all stages of infection, literally billions of HIV particles (copies) are produced every day and circulate in the blood. This production of virus is associated with a decline (at an inconsistent rate) in the number of CD4 cells in the blood over the ensuing years. Although the precise mechanism by which HIV infection results in CD4 cell decline is not known, it probably results from a direct effect of the virus on the cell as well as the body's attempt to clear these infected cells from the system. In addition to virus in the blood, there is also virus throughout the body, especially in the lymph nodes, brain, and genital secretions.

What are HIV symptoms and signs in men, women, and children?

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The time from HIV infection to the development of AIDS varies. Rarely, some individuals develop complications of HIV that define AIDS within one year, while others remain completely asymptomatic after as many as 20 years from the time of infection. However, in the absence of antiretroviral therapy, the time for progression from initial infection to AIDS is approximately eight to 10 years. The reason why people experience clinical progression of HIV at different rates remains an area of active research.

Within weeks of infection, many people will develop the varied symptoms of primary or acute infection which typically has been described as a mononucleosis- or influenza-like illness but can range from minimal fever, aches, and pains to very severe symptoms. The most common symptoms of primary HIV infection are

  • fever,
  • aching muscles and joints,
  • sore throat,
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck.

It is not known, however, why only some HIV-infected people develop these symptoms. It also is unknown whether or not having the symptoms is related in any way to the future course of HIV disease. Regardless, infected people will become symptom-free (asymptomatic) after this phase of primary infection. During the first weeks of infection when a patient may have symptoms of primary HIV infection, antibody testing may still be negative (the so-called window period). If there is suspicion of early infection based upon the types of symptoms present and a potential recent exposure, consideration should be given to having a test performed that specifically looks for the virus circulating in the blood, such as a viral load test or the use of an assay that identifies HIV p24 antigen, for example, the new fourth-generation antibody/antigen combination test. Identifying and diagnosing individuals with primary infection is important to assure early access into care and to counsel them regarding the risk of transmitting to others. The latter is particularly important since patients with primary HIV infection have very high levels of virus throughout their body and are likely to be highly infectious. Once the patient enters the asymptomatic phase, infected individuals will know whether or not they are infected if a test for HIV antibodies is done.

Shortly after primary infection, most individuals enter a period of many years where they have no symptoms at all. During this time, CD4 cells may gradually decline, and with this decline in the immune system, patients may develop the mild symptoms of HIV such as vaginal or oral candidiasis thrush (a fungal infection), fungal infections of the nails, a white brush-like border on the sides of tongue called hairy leukoplakia, chronic rashes, diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss. Any of these symptoms should prompt HIV testing if it is not being done for other reasons. With a further decline in function of the immune system, patients are at increasing risk of developing more severe complications of HIV, including many more serious infections (opportunistic infections), malignancies, severe weight loss, and decline in mental function. From a practical perspective, most physicians think about patients with HIV diseases as having no symptoms, mild symptoms, or being severely symptomatic. In addition, many would characterize a patient's level of immunosuppression by the degree and type of symptoms they have as well as the CD4 cell count. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have defined the presence of a long list of specific diseases or the presence of less than 200 CD4 cells per mm3 as meeting a somewhat arbitrary definition of AIDS. It is important to note that with effective antiretroviral therapy many of the signs and symptoms of HIV as well as severity of immunosuppression can be completely reversed, restoring even the most symptomatic patients to a state of excellent health.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/5/2014

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