Course of the infection
The experience of someone with HIV has changed dramatically since effective HIV treatment has been available. Anti-HIV drugs prevent HIV from replicating in the body. Most people can therefore live a long time with the virus. The last phase of the illness, AIDS, can now be avoided.
Regular blood tests enable doctors to determine the best time to begin HIV therapy.
Many people, however, first find out about their HIV infection when they are taken to hospital with a serious illness. By that time, HIV has already caused damage to their body, which cannot entirely be reversed.
The course of untreated HIV infection can differ greatly from person to person. However, it is possible to describe typical phases.
More detailed information on HIV treatment can be found here.
In the beginning
In the beginning
Shortly after initial infection with HIV, the virus replicates in the body very quickly. Two to four weeks after the infection, flu-like symptoms are usually experienced, such as fever, night sweats, diarrhea, exhaustion, swelling of the lymph nodes, and skin rashes. They usually disappear of their own accord after one or two weeks, and are often mistakenly believed to be the flu or an intestinal infection.
During this first stage of the illness, an especially large amount of HIV is present in bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluid and in some mucous membranes (for example in the anal and genital areas). The risk of infection for sexual partners is particularly high during this period.
In the first three months, the body's own defense systems react to the HIV infection by generating antibodies. Antibodies work by making the pathogens that cause illness harmless. Unfortunately, that doesn't work as well with HIV as it does with measles or mumps, for example. The immune system can hold the virus at bay for some time, but it cannot defeat it.
The antibodies remain in the body for the rest of your life. They show up if you have a test for them. This is how the test for HIV infection works (HIV antibody test, HIV test).
In the following months and years, HIV replicates in the body, often unnoticed. During this time it can cause permanent damage to the body's immune system and some organs. The bowel, in particular, which plays an important role in the body's defense systems, can be badly affected.
In the end, symptoms such as fever, night sweats, diarrhea and swelling of the lymph nodes appear. The person's susceptibility to illness increases.
If the HIV infection is not treated with anti-HIV drugs, most people’s immune systems are no longer able to defend the body from pathogens that cause illness. Serious illnesses such as pneumonia, esophagitis (a fungal infection of the esophagus) or certain types of cancer can develop. The nervous system and the brain can also be damaged by HIV. It is only at this stage of the illness that it is called AIDS.
Today, AIDS occurs more and more rarely in countries with good medical care.