Signs and Symptoms

People with HIV usually look or feel well for a number of years. They are not likely to feel ill or notice any symptoms during the first few years of their infection.

All the same, over time the virus attacks their body, causing a drop in their CD4 cells (or T cells, a blood cell that plays a role in your body fighting off infections).

As HIV weakens someone’s immune system and their CD4 count drops, they may experience signs of other illnesses. These may include weight loss, night sweats, thrush in the mouth, an increase in herpes or ‘cold sore’ outbreaks, swollen glands in the groin, neck or armpit, or long lasting diarrhoea or tiredness.

But remember, people who don’t have HIV can also get any of these; they can be the signs of other illnesses. A weakened immune system may leave someone more open to infections such as TB or pneumonia.

If started soon enough, HIV treatment can prevent or clear up these infections. Thanks to effective treatment, many people with HIV will never get serious HIV-related illnesses. It’s increasingly likely that people diagnosed early and who start treatment before HIV damages their immune system will live as long as people who don’t have HIV.

Although people with HIV can feel well for years, when they first get infected many experience a short-lived illness (seroconversion illness) as their body reacts to HIV.


Up to six weeks after getting HIV, as their immune system reacts to the presence of the virus in their body, many people experience a short illness lasting two to four weeks.

This is called a ‘seroconversion illness’ and it can be mild (and may be dismissed as something like flu) or severe enough to put a person in hospital. (However, a blocked or runny nose is not necessarily a symptom of seroconversion illness).

During this time a lot of HIV is present in someone’s body fluids (eg, blood, semen and vaginal secretions). This makes them very infectious and more likely to pass the virus on if they have unprotected sex or share injecting equipment.

Key symptoms of seroconversion illness are:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • rash on the body.

If someone experiences two of the above within six weeks of unprotected sex or unsafe drug injecting, then it is possible they have HIV. If they have all three there is a strong possibility HIV infection is the cause. But other infections such as glandular fever produce similar symptoms and, although most people get some kind of seroconversion illness after becoming infected, many do not.

It’s important to remember that only an HIV test will show if HIV is the cause of any symptoms. If you have unprotected sex or share injecting equipment but don’t get ill within six weeks, don’t assume you can’t have HIV.

After unprotected sex with a risk of HIV, a HIV test is recommended. Tell whoever tests you if you’ve recently taken any risks or had symptoms similar to seroconversion illness, as this will affect the kind of HIV test you should have.

Page content supplied by Copyright 2012 © Terrence Higgins Trust.

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