What is acute HIV
HIV syndrome is a name
for the early stage of HIV infection, when you first get infected with the
HIV virus. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. These are some of
the symptoms of acute HIV syndrome:
A tired feeling
Swollen lymph nodes
Swollen tonsils (also called tonsillitis)
A sore throat
Joint and muscle aches
The symptoms of acute HIV
syndrome usually last for about 14 days after HIV exposure. They could last
for just a few days, or they could last for several months.
You might not realize
your illness is acute HIV infection. For one thing, the person you caught
HIV from may not even look sick. And the signs and symptoms of HIV infection
may look just like mononucleosis (mono), tonsillitis or the flu.
What tests can show that
I have acute HIV infection?
When HIV enters your
body, it moves inside white blood cells called "CD4 lymphocytes." HIV takes
over the CD4 cells and makes billions of virus pieces each day. The virus
pieces spread through your body.
Your body tries to defend
itself against HIV by making the following:
Antibodies (these hook on to the virus and keep it from making virus
Special cells called macrophages and natural killer T-cells. These
cells help you to get rid of some of the virus pieces. If antibodies against
HIV show up in your blood, you know your body is trying to protect you from
the HIV infection you have picked up. However, it's usually several months
before your body makes enough antibodies to measure.
So at the time you have
acute HIV syndrome, you probably won't have enough HIV antibodies in your
blood to measure, and this test can't give you a diagnosis.
However, when you have
acute HIV syndrome, you do have a high level of HIV RNA in your blood. A
test can measure the amount of HIV RNA in your blood. (RNA is the short name
for "ribonucleic acid". RNA is made when the virus is active.) This test
tells your doctor that you're feeling sick because you have acute HIV
What happens after a
person gets HIV infection?
After acute HIV
infection, your body works hard to attack the virus. With your body
fighting, the virus can't make so many virus pieces. Even though you still
have HIV infection, you'll begin to look well and feel well again. The usual
blood tests will be normal.
However, during this
time, the virus pieces are still attacking your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are
the centers of your body's immune system. The virus may also attack your
brain tissue and slowly cause damage there.
Over 10 to 15 years, HIV
would kill so many CD4 cells that your body could no longer fight off
infections. At this point, we would say that you have AIDS (acquired
immunodeficiency syndrome). Once you have AIDS, you can easily get many
Does it help me to find
out I have HIV at an early stage?
Yes. Right now, we have
no cure for HIV infection. Your body can make antibodies and killer T-cells
to slow down the progress of HIV, but they can't get rid of the virus. In
fact, the very act of going after HIV may wear out your immune system in a
However, we know that
treatment with HIV medicines (usually at least three at once) can hold down
the virus and keep your body's immune system strong for a longer time.
That's why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends
early treatment of people with acute HIV syndrome.
How is HIV treated?
HIV treatment must last
for a long time (maybe forever). A kind of medicine called reverse
transcriptase inhibitors stops the virus from taking over the CD4
lymphocytes--but this medicine can't work if the CD4 takeover has already
happened. To get help from these medicines, you have to start taking them at
an early stage. You might take two of these medicines at one time.
Another kind of medicine,
called protease inhibitors, works later in the life cycle of HIV. It stops
the infected CD4 cells from making more virus pieces.
If you have HIV, you'll
have to take many pills and liquids several times a day. Side effects are
common. You might have nausea, bloating, diarrhea and headaches. You might
notice mood changes or have serious reactions to the medicines. Some of
these medicines can cause kidney stones or keep your kidneys from working
Because you have to keep
taking these medicines for such a long time, it's important to find a
medicine plan you (and your body) can get along with.
Remember that it's not
good to just stop taking any of your medicines, or to take fewer pills every
day. It's important to take some of your medicines with food and to take
some medicines between meals. If you don't follow the doctor's directions,
you might develop a virus that is resistant to the medicines.
What's in the future?
Combination drug therapy
has changed HIV disease from the leading killer of young adults to a chronic
illness that we can control for decades. However, even though you can take
HIV medicines and feel OK, you could still give the virus to others through
unsafe sex or blood exchanges. The medicines don't kill the virus--they just
keep your immune system strong enough to stop AIDS or slow it down.
At this time, we're
trying to make new medicines that you can take less often and that are more
powerful in holding back the virus.
Where can I get more
information about HIV?
For more information, you
can call the national AIDS hotline: 1-800-342-AIDS.
This handout provides a general overview on
this topic and may not apply to everyone. To find out if this handout
applies to you and to get more information on this subject, talk to your