Symptoms of HIV
Most people who are infected with HIV experience a short, flu-like illness that occurs two to six weeks after infection. After this, HIV often causes no symptoms for several years.
The flu-like illness that often occurs a few weeks after HIV infection is also known as seroconversion illness. It's estimated that up to 80 per cent of people who are infected with HIV experience this illness.
The most common symptoms are:
- fever (raised temperature)
- sore throat
- body rash
Other symptoms can include:
- joint pain
- muscle pain
- swollen glands (nodes)
The symptoms usually last one to two weeks but can be longer. They are a sign that your immune system is putting up a fight against the virus. However, these symptoms are most commonly caused by conditions other than HIV and do not mean you have the virus.
If you have several of these symptoms, and you think you have been at risk of HIV infection within the past few weeks, you should get an HIV test.
After initial symptoms
After the initial symptoms disappear, HIV will often not cause any further symptoms for many years. During this time, known as asymptomatic HIV infection, the virus continues to be active and causes progressive damage to your immune system. This process can take about ten years during which you will feel and appear well.
Once the immune system becomes severely damaged, symptoms can include:
- weight loss
- chronic diarrhoea
- night sweats
- skin problems
- recurrent infections
- serious life-threatening illnesses
Earlier diagnosis and treatment of HIV can prevent these problems.
It is recommended you should still take an HIV test if you have put yourself at risk at any time in the past, even if you experience no symptoms.
It is very difficult to diagnose HIV from symptoms alone and some people living with HIV have no signs and symptoms for many years. Taking an HIV test is the only way to find out if you have HIV.
HIV testing is available free of charge through Health and Social Care services. You may be offered a test if you see your GP, are admitted to hospital or go to an outpatient clinic with a condition that could be related to HIV.
The period of time between becoming infected with HIV and the infection being detectable by a test is called the “window period”. If a test is performed during this window period, it is unlikely to detect HIV and a person who has recently become infected with HIV may receive a “false negative” test result.
Different tests have different window periods. It can take up to three months after infection for some HIV tests to be able to detect HIV.
The most common form of HIV test is a blood test, in which a small amount of blood is taken and tested in a laboratory. HIV tests performed in a clinical setting, such as in the laboratory or GUM clinic, have shorter window periods and can detect HIV more quickly (about four weeks after infection).
The test result is usually available within a few days, sometimes on the same day. If the test finds no signs of infection, then your test result is “negative”. If the HIV virus has been found, then the test result is “positive”.
It is also possible to screen for HIV using a rapid point of care test kit which tests a sample of saliva taken from the mouth or a spot of blood taken from pricking a finger with a needle. The result is available within a few minutes.
However, it can take up to several weeks longer after you have been infected with HIV for the virus to show up in saliva and blood spot tests. If you are concerned you may have been infected with HIV within the past few weeks, then it's best to have the full blood test for HIV.
All positive test results should be confirmed with a blood test in a clinical setting.
Where to get an HIV test
There are lots of ways to test for HIV. In Northern Ireland you can get a free HIV test at GP surgeries, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics at hospitals, sexual health clinics or at antenatal clinics (all pregnant women are offered an HIV screening test as part of routine care when they first book).
Some voluntary organisations including Positive Life and The Rainbow Project also can arrange rapid HIV testing.
It is now possible to buy HIV self-testing kits that allow you to test yourself and see the result immediately, without the involvement of a health professional. It is important to check that any HIV self-test kit you buy carries the European ‘CE’ quality mark for use as a HIV self-test.
There is currently only one self-test kit that has this CE mark (the Biosure HIV Self Test). If the self-test result is reactive (‘positive’), you must have the result confirmed with a test taken by a healthcare professional in a clinic.
Self-testing for HIV may not be the most suitable option for some people as it is different from consulting a health care worker who can advise you about testing, provide additional support and help you access laboratory tests of the highest quality.
More information on HIV self-testing in Northern Ireland is available on the Sexual Health website and the Biosure HIV self-test website:
Benefits of knowing you’re HIV positive
Whatever your result might be, there are now many good reasons to test and few reasons to avoid testing. The earlier HIV is diagnosed, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful. This means you are more likely to have a healthy life and have fewer problems with symptoms of the infection.
It will also help to protect your sexual partners.
For pregnant women, the chances of passing on HIV infection to your baby either during pregnancy, at delivery or afterwards by breastfeeding, can be greatly reduced through:
- careful management
- HIV treatment
- not breastfeeding