Signs and symptoms of AIDS

Originally Published: September 1, 1993 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 12, 2008
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Alice,

I want to know about the situations which one would suffer from AIDS.

Signed,
Curious

Dear Curious,

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. HIV/AIDS damages a person's immune system and leaves him/her vulnerable to otherwise harmless infections and certain other diseases. People have different symptoms depending on whether they are recently infected with HIV, have a weakened immune system due to HIV (but don't yet meet the criteria for AIDS), or actually have AIDS-related illnesses or infections.

People who have recently been infected with HIV may experience a condition called Acute Retroviral Syndrome (ARS), primary HIV infection, or conversion sickness. Symptoms of ARS include swollen lymph nodes, fever, headache, fatigue, malaise, joint pain, and/or a rash. These generally appear within one to two months after infection and disappear as the body's immune system begins fighting back. The symptoms usually last no longer than a month. For people who are at low risk for HIV, however, it's more likely that people with these problems have a more common infection, such as the flu, which has similar symptoms.

After the initial infection, people generally go through a period where they have no symptoms. Such a period varies in length and can be extended by HIV medications. However, HIV continues to weaken the immune system throughout this asymptomatic period, which may eventually end. Once symptoms do appear, they can include swollen or painful lymph nodes, unexplained weight loss, persistent diarrhea, lack of energy, shingles, dry cough, yeast infections, and even memory loss. Often, these symptoms keep coming back and are more severe than what a typical non-infected person might experience.

Finally, HIV infection can progress into AIDS. Because their immune systems are weakened, people with AIDS are susceptible to many different infections and illnesses, both common and uncommon. For example, there are a number of AIDS-defining illnesses, know as opportunistic infections (OIs).  Most of these are caused by pathogens that many HIV-negative people carry without becoming ill. Other signs of AIDS-related illnesses or infections may include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • loss of appetite
  • losing more than ten percent of one's body weight (also known as "wasting")
  •  headache
  • sore throat
  • rash
  • night sweats
  •  confusion
  • memory loss
  • loss of muscle strength
  • fatigue

These symptoms are usually persistent and severe in people with AIDS.

The only way to know for sure that a person has HIV is by testing, and AIDS must be diagnosed by a health care professional. If you want more information about HIV/AIDS, including its symptoms, the Columbia University Handbook on HIV/AIDS is available for free online. HIV testing is available for free for people at Columbia (and their partners) on a walk-in basis through the Gay Health Advocacy Project (GHAP) — check their website for hours.

Alice