Primary HIV infection is the first stage of HIV disease,
when the virus first establishes itself in the body (1). Two to four
weeks after exposure to the virus, up to 87% of HIV-infected persons
suffer flu-like symptoms for a few days, indicating that their immune
systems are fighting the newly introduced HIV. This sickness is called
acute HIV syndrome.
Its symptoms include fevers, chills, headaches, night sweats, rashes,
and swollen glands (2).
It usually takes 6-12 weeks for the immune system to produce
antibodies to fight against the virus. This means that a newly infected
person's blood may not test positive for HIV antibodies in the first
few weeks after becoming infected. Newly infected people are highly
contagious during primary infection because large quantities of HIV
are present in their genital fluids (3).
“Seroconversion” describes the time when the
body begins producing antibodies to the virus. Most people develop antibodies
within three months. Some people can take up to six months to develop
antibodies to HIV (1).
Chronic HIV Infection
After the primary infection, HIV+ people then enter an asymptomatic
period (that is, a time when they have no signs or symptoms of HIV disease).
This period is also called "clinical latency." The duration
of people's asymptomatic period varies, and is influenced by their overall
health and immune system functioning.
Immune System Decline
Although HIV+ people have
no symptoms during the asymptomatic period, their immune systems are
already suffering from the presence of HIV. The virus is actively multiplying,
and infecting and killing immune system cells (3). HIV levels (“plasma
viral load”) in an HIV+ person’s body correlates with the
rate of CD4+ cell decline (immune system decline). This means that the
more HIV a person has in his or her body--that is, the higher the plasma
viral load--the lower his or her number of health-protecting CD4+ cells.
The more HIV levels increase and numbers of CD4+ cells decrease, the
faster a person progresses to AIDS and death (3).
When HIV levels are not detectable in an HIV+ person's
body, he or she has a stable CD4 lymphocyte count. At some point in
most people’s HIV disease, the person’s immune system decline
quickens, and the virus rapidly replicates (3).
The graph below shows how the average person with HIV
CD4+ cell counts and plasma viral loads change over the course of HIV
disease. As the graph shows, the natural progression of HIV disease
(in the absence of treatment) is fairly slow, taking a decade or more
from infection to the development of severe immunodeficiency (3). The
line with closed green circles on it charts the average number of CD4+
cells (the immune cells that HIV attacks) in HIV+ people's bodies over
time. The line with open blue circles on it charts the average number
of HIV particles in HIV+ people's bodies over time.
Mild, Non-specific Symptoms
Once the immune system is damaged, many people will begin to experience
some mild symptoms. These include:
- Swollen lymph nodes that persist for more than 3
- Weight loss
- Frequent fevers and sweats
- Persistent or frequent yeast infections (oral and vaginal)
- Persistent skin rashes & flaky skin
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) that does not respond to treatment
- Short-term memory loss
- Frequent or severe herpes infections with oral, genital, or anal sores
- Shingles (a nerve disease)
Advanced HIV Disease/ Clinical AIDS
More Severe Symptoms, Opportunistic Infections
and Diseases, “Living with AIDS”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has two different
sets of criteria for diagnosing AIDS. Both sets of criteria include
the presence of HIV or HIV antibodies in the blood or tissues. In addition,
the first set of criteria specifies the number of CD4+ cells that signals
AIDS. The second set of criteria specifies the 26 opportunistic infections
that signal AIDS.
CDC AIDS CRITERIA: SET 1
An HIV infection, confirmed by testing, plus a
CD4+ T-cell count of less than 200 per cubic millimeter of blood
(healthy adults usually have CD4+T-cell counts
of 1,000 or more) (4).
CDC AIDS CRITERIA: SET 2
An HIV infection, confirmed by testing, plus one
of 26 clinical conditions, primarily opportunistic infections
that do not normally affect healthy people, including certain
kinds of pneumonia or tuberculosis (PCP) (4). In people with AIDS,
these infections are often severe and sometimes fatal, because
of the people's compromised immune systems.
infections are infections that are caused by bacteria, funguses,
or viruses that do not cause disease in people with normal immune systems.
In HIV+ people, however, these disease-causing agents take the "opportunity"
to flourish in the absence of a normal immune response (1).
infections that – accompanied by a positive HIV test –
indicate AIDS include:
Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP) (a kind of pneumonia)
Kaposi's Sarcoma (KS) (a kind of cancer)
HIV wasting syndrome (extreme weight loss)
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (a kind of cancer)
Cryptococcosis, extra pulmonary (a parasitic infection, initially
of the lungs, that spreads to other parts of the body)
HIV encephalopathy (AIDS Dementia)
Mycobacterium Avium Intracellulare (MAC or MAI) (a bacterial
infection of the lungs)
Candidiasis (Yeast Infection) of the trachea, bronchi, or
Candidiasis (Yeast Infection) of the esophagus
Cryptosporidiosis, chronic intestinal (a bacterial infection
of the intestines)
Cytomegalovirus disease (CMV) (a kind of eye infection)
Tuberculosis (outside of the lungs)
Herpes simplex virus infection
Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy (PML) (a nervous
Primary lymphoma of the brain (a cancer)
Toxoplasmosis of the brain (a parasitic infection of the brain)
Histoplasmosis (a fungal infection that often scars the lungs)
Isoporiasis, chronic intestinal (protozoa, or tiny animal-like
organisms, that infect the intestines)
Coccidioidomycosis (a fungal infection)
Salmonella septicemia (a bacterial infection)
Bacterial infections, recurrent, <13 years
Lymphoid interstitial pneumonia/pulmonary lymphoid hyperplasia,
<13 years (lung diseases)
Recurrent bacterial pneumonia (two or more episodes in one
Invasive cervical cancer
of opportunistic infections common in people with AIDS
and shortness of breath
Seizures and lack of coordination
Difficult or painful swallowing
Mental symptoms such as confusion and forgetfulness
Severe and persistent diarrhea
Nausea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting
Weight loss and extreme fatigue
Disease in Children
In the early stages of HIV disease, children who are
HIV+ may be frequently ill or have slowed growth. At later stages, children
get the same opportunistic infections as adults do, and may also experience
severe forms of common childhood bacterial infections, such as pink
eye (conjunctivitis), ear infections, and tonsillitis.
1. San Francisco AIDS Foundation. AIDS 101: Guide to HIV Basics- The Stages
of HIV Disease. San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 1998. Retrieved on January
26, 2004 from http://www.thebody.com/sfaf/stages.html.
2. Bradley Hare, C. Clinical overview of HIV disease HIV
InSite Knowledge Base Chapter. San Francisco, CA: Center for HIV Information,
University of California, San Francisco, 2004. Retrieved on June 1, 2004
3. Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
HIV Infection and AIDS: An Overview. National Institutes of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services, October 2003. Retrieved on January 14, 2004
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Revised
classification system for HIV infection and expanded surveillance case
definition for AIDS among adolescents and adults. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality
Weekly Report 1992; 41(RR-17):1-19, 1993.
5. Pantaleo, G., Graziosi, C., and Fauci, A.S. New concepts
in the immunopathogenesis of human immunodeficiency virus infection. New
England Journal of Medicine, 328(5):327-235, 1993.