The symptoms and signs of every HIV stage may vary from person to person. These distinct symptomatic phases are the result of the processes and changes that take place in the body of a person with HIV. Some people may not present with any symptoms for a long time, maybe years. HIV causes progressive damage to the immune system, which commences as soon as the primary infection enters the body. Immediate treatment with antiretroviral medication is mandatory because of the virus's rapid replication capacity. 

How to stop HIV from replicating?

To stop HIV from replicating and causing irreversible damage, you first have to identify it by getting tested. Today, with the help of STD rapid kit tests, HIV is easy to diagnose at home. Through treatment and control of the disease, most people with the infection can have an average life. 

Stage one: Acute infection

HIV is transmissible through blood, semen, pre-seminal, rectal, or vaginal fluids, and breast milk. One to four weeks after primary infection with HIV, you may experience some flu-like symptoms that may last for about a week. However, some people are perfectly well. On the other hand, having such symptoms might only mean you caught the flu. The only way to know for sure is to get tested. If, however, you exposed yourself to contaminated blood or genitals fluid, it might be something more than just seasonal flu. Unusual changes in our bodies a while after we had unprotected sex, could often indicate an STD. To exclude the worst-case scenario, you should get tested. Symptoms and signs of stage-one HIV infection are some of the following:

  • Fever
  • HIV rash
  • Sore throat
  • Lymphadenopathy (swollen lymph nodes)
  • Headache
  • Pain in the joints, muscles, and bones

What happens to the body during stage one of HIV?

In the initial stage, our body perceives HIV as a foreign invader. Therefore, our immune system starts fighting the virus and reacting to it. The result of these interactions is the flu-like symptoms mentioned above. HIV antibodies are the product of this stage, called seroconversion. Since HIV antibodies multiple at this stage, it could be too early to get tested at this phase. Sometimes, results might be a false negative. However, the viral load is very high at this point. 

Stage two: No symptoms

After primary infection and seroconversion stage, an HIV-positive person goes into a long asymptomatic phase. Patients start feeling better, and this honeymoon period might last for up to fifteen years. During this dangerous state, the person feels strong and healthy again and doesn't probably think of getting tested. Possibly, he or she can continue transmitting the virus to other future partners. 

What happens in the body during stage two of HIV?

During this long and asymptomatic phase, the virus is still active. It continues replicating itself and making new copies, infecting and destroying new cells. Although the viral load is not high, you can get it through infected blood and genital fluids. Not receiving antiretroviral medication at this stage could have life-threatening consequences in the future. 

Stage three: Typical HIV symptoms and AIDS

Reaching stage three of HIV equals to a severely damaged immune system. Opportunistic infections are very common at this phase. The pathogens responsible for these infections are bacteria or fungi that wouldn't commonly hurt or affect healthy people because of their strong and functional immune system. These infections are usually serious and could kill an HIV-positive person. Symptoms and signs of stage-three HIV infection are some of the following:

  • Weight loss and night sweats
  • Chronic diarrhea and fever
  • Persistent cough 
  • Sores in the mouth or skin rashes
  • Serious opportunistic infections 

What happens to the body during stage three of HIV?

At this point, a person already has acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is not something you get from others. Therefore, it is not a virus or a distinct disease. AIDS is a group of symptoms and characteristics that show a person's incapability to fight infections. The hallmark of this syndrome is the presence of opportunistic infections. The reason why an individual reaches this phase is severe damage to the immune system. Therefore, advanced stage-three HIV infection equals to AIDS. AIDS may be life-threatening, but if you get out of it early enough with medication, you might manage to control HIV again. 

Reducing the risk of getting HIV

HIV does not discriminate, and anyone can get infected. All you can do is learn how to protect yourself a little bit more than you did in the past. The following are some essential tips regarding HIV risk reduction:

  • Get tested before having sex with a new partner
  • Get your partner tested before engaging in sexual activities
  • Adopt less risky sexual behaviors
  • Use protection, such as condoms or dental dams
  • Try to have as few partners as possible
  • Get tested for other STDs that may increase your chance for contracting HIV
  • Treat any other STDs
  • Learn about  pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)
  • Do not use injectable drugs

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is when you don't have HIV, but you are at high risk of contracting it. For example, your partner with whom you have sexual contact is HIV-positive. This preventive intervention includes taking daily medication to prevent acquiring the virus. Studies suggest that PrEP decreases the chance of contracting HIV from sex by 99%. However, it becomes much less effective when not taken daily. Those who use injectable drugs have 74% fewer chances of getting HIV if they receive daily PrEP. 

Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)

Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is when you got exposed to HIV and want to prevent the infection. PEP is an emergency intervention, and you must initiate it within 72 hours after the potential contact with the virus. PEP consists of taking antiretroviral medicines (ART), once or twice daily for 28 days. However, the sooner you start the treatment, the better. PEP is effective but doesn't provide you with 100% prevention. 

Antiretroviral medication and side effects

Antiretroviral medication (ART) may cause some side effects, like most drugs in general. However, different types of ARTs lead to diverse adverse effects. Their benefits outweigh the risk of side effects, which are manageable in their majority. Individual HIV regimens help patients choose treatment plans that benefit them the most and cause them the least side effects possible. Another significant aspect of treatments, in general, is different drugs interaction. For example, it might not be ART that causes a side effect, but its interaction with another drug that you take for a different medical condition. Choosing the correct HIV regimen is crucial for maintaining the quality of life and minimizing unnecessary symptoms. 

How long can I live with HIV?