For those of us in the HIV ‘sector’, discussing the symptoms of HIV is not a common talking point. Our focus is normally around prevention, testing, and then the treatment and care of those diagnosed with HIV. It can be easy to neglect the fact that many people are not in the habit of regular testing, and may experience symptoms of HIV before even considering what those symptoms might be and getting tested for it.
A quick refresher course on the possible symptoms of sero-conversion, that is, the period when a person transitions from HIV negative to HIV positive, serves as a useful reminder.
And so, the basics:
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and weakens the body’s ability to fight infections and can be transmitted from one person to another. The three main methods of transmission are: sharing injecting drug equipment, unprotected sex and mother to child transmission.
In Australia, thanks to best practice medical treatments and needle exchange programs, very few HIV transmissions occur from sharing equipment or mother-to-child. Almost all transmissions occur from sexual activity.
Generally, it can take around 6 weeks after a transmission for HIV to be detected in the blood. Symptoms can happen early, or take much longer; it can be months or even years, before a person living with HIV becomes unwell.
After being infected with HIV, some people experience ‘flu-like’ symptoms, such as fever, headache, tiredness and a rash. Some HIV positive people never have these symptoms however, so it is important to remember that these are not a reliable indicator of transmission. Getting tested is the only way to know for sure.
A person who is HIV positive is usually given a diagnosis of AIDS if they develop two or more opportunistic illnesses simultaneously, and/or have a CD4 cell count below 200. An opportunistic illness is one which takes advantage of the ‘opportunity’ presented by a damaged immune system and usually present no threat when the immune system is working properly. There are over 40 illnesses which have been classified as opportunistic illnesses.
The CD4 count is a test that measures how many CD4 cells you have in your blood. These are a type of white blood cell, called T-cells, that move throughout your body to find and destroy bacteria, viruses, and other invading germs. The fewer CD4 cells you have, the greater the risk of an opportunistic illness.
If you are having regular unprotected sex, especially with multiple partners, getting tested every 3-6 months is recommended. To find out where to get a test in WA, click here.