What are the symptoms of HIV?

In past articles, I have ranted about how emotionally destructive it can be to worry a lot about symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV. My point has always been that emphasizing symptoms can often either make you a nervous wreck for no good reason or give you a dangerous false sense of security.

I am writing this as a counselor. I am not a physician, and medical treatment of early symptoms is something to be discussed with a specialist, but as a counselor I have seen how destructive a little information can be.

Acute retroviral infection related to HIV is a prime example. I once gave a talk about HIV to a tech school class, and one of the students said something like “what’s cute about an infection.” The answer, of course, is “Nothing, but it can be indicator of potentially serious issues ahead.”

Acute retroviral infection occurs soon after someone is infected with HIV. Symptoms are often many, varied and vague. In the early days the syndrome was referred to as a “mono-like illness” because many of its features were also features of mononucleosis. There was a time when it was even suggested that the virus which causes mononucleosis, Epstein-Barr Virus, was also the causal agent in HIV. This was rejected by medical science of course, but the fact remains that the symptoms are very similar.

People also refer to this condition as a “flu-like syndrome”, but it is obviously not influenza either. People with actual acute retroviral illness often have high fever, headaches, severe sore throat, muscle aches, gastro-intestinal problems, fatigue and even neurological issues, some of which can be so severe as to cause temporary paralysis and extreme mental confusion. What really complicates everything is that the presentation of acute retroviral infection, like the flu or mono, can have different levels of severity in different people. People can go about their normal daily lives with little interruption, they might have to be hospitalized or they can wind up somewhere in between, like staying home in bed for a time. In the case of HIV infection, up to 20% or possibly more can show no signs of illness whatsoever.

This all makes for considerable confusion, unnecessary worry or potentially dangerous complacency.

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