Dear Alice,

Is it true that after contact with the AIDS virus, one develops flu-like symptoms within 6 weeks?

— Symptom monger

Dear Symptom monger,

After contracting HIV, it is true that some people will have symptoms of a condition known as either acute retroviral syndrome (ARS) or primary HIV infection. People with primary HIV infection can experience a wide range of symptoms similar to those of the flu. These include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Rash
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Joint pains and muscle aches
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Neurological symptoms, e.g., memory loss

These symptoms appear two to four weeks after infection and can last anywhere from a few days to a month.

Not everyone who becomes infected will show signs of primary HIV infection. Remember, too, that many other infections, including more common ones such as the flu and mononucleosis, share these same signs. Just having flu-like symptoms, then, is nowhere near enough information to tell you that you have HIV.

The only way to know your HIV status for sure is to get tested. Keep in mind that HIV test results are considered reliable after three months have passed since possible exposure to the virus. Still, for people who don't engage in activities that have a higher risk of HIV infection (e.g., unprotected intercourse or sharing needles), it's much more likely that these symptoms would be signs of a less serious infection.

If you have any of the symptoms listed above, and especially if you are worried about being HIV-positive, you may want to go to a health care provider so you can get an accurate diagnosis. You also might think about getting tested periodically for HIV and steering clear of higher-risk activities. This may help you avoid some of the paranoia you feel when you feel sick.


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