This is a great question, as you tackle a big misconception by recognizing that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is not the same as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Many people make the mistake of believing that it is possible to recognize if a person has HIV. Most often, however, people infected with HIV don’t know they are infected because they don’t feel sick. Some people may get a fever-like illness with fever, rash, joint pains and swollen glands (lymph nodes) immediately after infection. These symptoms usually occur between 1 and 6 weeks after HIV infection has happened and then the symptoms go away.
A person with HIV may look healthy and feel well, but they can still pass the virus on, especially early on in their infection. That’s why you can’t tell if someone has HIV by just looking at them. Over time, however, the HIV virus can develop into AIDS. This typically takes 10-15 years as HIV continues to destroy a person’s immune system, making them more likely to get many different kinds of infections. Once a person with HIV develops any one of a number of infections–such as herpes, tuberculosis, pneumonia, fungal infections–or cancer that causes tumors in the body, they are said to have AIDS, the syndrome of HIV-related immune deficiency.
AIDS affects various parts of the body in different ways. Common symptoms include: fatigue, weight loss, thrush (white patches in the mouth), recurring fever, and diarrhea. Other body systems, such as the brain, kidneys, heart, and genital organs can also be affected by AIDS and will have symptoms specific to that system. As always, if you are unsure about your status it’s always best to get tested for HIV to know for sure because AIDS can be prevented by taking a combination of antiviral medications.
–Will Wong, MD