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Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection

Last updated April 3, 2018

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD, MPH


HIV infection is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a virus which gradually destroys the immune system.

What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Acute HIV Infection
  • HIV Seroconversion Syndrome
  • Primary HIV infection

What is Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection? (Definition/Background Information)

  • HIV infection is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a virus which gradually destroys the immune system
  • The period of infectivity that immediately follows an infection with HIV, can be termed as Acute HIV Infection. It is the second stage in HIV infection that occurs after the incubation period, but before latency and potential AIDS stage
  • HIV is usually acquired through sexual intercourse or exposure to infected blood or body fluids, which may occur due to:
    • Unprotected vaginal or oral sexual contact with an infected individual
    • Sharing needles and syringes used by an infected individual
    • An infected mother transmitting the disease to the baby, either during pregnancy (through the placenta), delivery, or while breast feeding
    • The disease can be transmitted when an infected person donates blood, body organs, or exchanges body fluids         
  • Acute HIV Infection lasts for about 2-4 weeks after exposure to the virus, during which time the affected individuals develop influenza or mononucleosis-like illness. Blood tests can help establish the diagnosis of Acute HIV Infection
  • The condition is characterized by a host of signs and symptoms such as fever, lymphadenopathy (swelling of the lymph nodes), pharyngitis (inflammation of the pharynx in the throat), rashes, muscle pain (myalgia), malaise, mouth and esophageal sores, headache, nausea, vomiting, enlarged liver/spleen, weight loss, thrush (a type of fungal infection) and neurological symptoms
  • In a majority of the cases, Acute HIV Infection progresses to an advanced AIDS stage. Treatment by anti-HIV medications is best determined by the physician and is variable from case to case
  • Acute HIV Infection can be avoided by practicing safe sex, avoiding intravenous drug abuse, the sharing of needles and other blood contaminated products

Who gets Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Any individual may be affected by Acute HIV Infection
  • There is no gender, ethnic, racial, and geographic predilection observed

What are the Risk Factors for Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection? (Predisposing Factors)

The risk factors for Acute HIV Infection are:

  • Sexual partners of individuals who are infected by HIV
  • Individuals having unprotected sex
  • Men and women with multiple sex partners
  • Men who have sex with men
  • Intravenous drug users due to sharing of needles
  • Victims of sexual assault

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection? (Etiology)

HIV infection is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that gradually destroys the immune system. Acute HIV Infection occurs 2-4 weeks after infection with the virus. The virus spreads by:

  • Sexual contact
  • Contaminated blood transfusions and blood products
  • Injections given to patients using contaminated needles and syringes
  • An infected pregnant woman can pass on the virus to the fetus through the placenta
  • In some cases, the virus can spread while breastfeeding

After an initial infection stage, there may be no evidence of the disease for another 10 years and this stage is called as asymptomatic HIV infection. Acute HIV Infection need not necessarily proceed to asymptomatic HIV infection phase and subsequently to advanced HIV disease, called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Nevertheless, in a majority of cases, Acute HIV Infection does progress to the advanced stage i.e. AIDS.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection?

More than half of the individuals affected by Acute HIV Infection develop symptoms, though the infection may or may not give rise to any symptoms. The signs and symptoms appear 5 to 30 days after initial infection and may last for at least 15 days (2 weeks).

The common signs and symptoms associated with Acute HIV Infection include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy)
  • Sore throat
  • Weight loss
  • Dry cough
  • Muscle aches and muscle stiffness
  • Headache
  • Malaise (feeling discomfort)
  • Nausea
  • Heavy sweating in the nights
  • Diarrhea
  • Rashes
  • Ulcers of the mouth and esophagus

All the above signs and symptoms resemble and are often confused with those of other viral diseases such as flu, mononucleosis, throat infection (Streptococcus infection, commonly known as strep throat), and many others.

How is Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of Acute HIV Infection may include:

  • A complete evaluation of individual's medical and sexual history along with a thorough physical exam
  • Antibody test or HIV ELISA or Western Blot test: The most common test performed is the antibody test. Enzyme immunoassay (EIA) or ELISA is used to check for antibodies produced in the body against the HIV virus
  • HIV RNA test/viral load test: The second type of test performed for the HIV virus is the HIV RNA or viral load test. This test will help in detecting the HIV virus and is an important test for diagnosing those who are recently infected

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection?

The following are the possible complications that may arise due to Acute HIV infection:

  • Progression to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
  • AID patients are at an increased risk of certain cancers that may include:
    • Kaposi’s sarcoma
    • Lymphomas

How is Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection Treated?

Treatment for HIV infection should begin with educating the patient about the disease and its treatment, so that they will cooperate with their healthcare provider during treatment.

  • Symptomatic treatment is given for fever and pain to ease discomfort
  • Highly active antiretroviral treatment (HAART) is a combination of 2-3 medications and is given to treat HIV infection. However, controversies still prevail regarding the use of HAART to slow down the progressive nature of the disease, because these drugs have many side effects. The physician usually decides on the commencement of HAART based on the patient's health status
  • People with Acute HIV Infection should also follow the following measures:
    • Avoid exposure to individuals with infectious diseases
    • Avoid places and areas that can make one feel depressed
    • Consume a well-balanced nutritious diet with enough calories
    • Follow an exercise regimen as advised by the physician and/or therapist, avoiding exhaustion
    •  Minimize stress        
    • Practice safe sex

How can Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection be Prevented?

HIV infection can be avoided by practicing the following measures:

  • Avoid unprotected sexual intercourse
  • Limit the number of sexual partners
  • Avoid sexual intercourse with someone having multiple sexual partners
  • Avoid intravenous (IV) drug abuse
  • Do not share needles and syringes
  • Individuals who have tested positive for HIV should not donate blood, plasma, body organs or sperm

What is the Prognosis of Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • Currently, there is no cure for Acute HIV Infection. However, following certain measures accompanied by the use of appropriate treatment methods can help improve the length and quality of life of the HIV-affected patients, which can also delay the onset of AIDS
  • The effectiveness of the treatment given for early symptomatic HIV disease is variable; the medicines used for HIV infection also have many side effects limiting their usefulness

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Acute Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection:

  • Immediately after an individual is infected with the HIV virus, blood tests can detect antibodies to the virus. This condition is called HIV seroconversion (converting from HIV negative to HIV positive by blood testing). It usually occurs within 3 months of exposure to the infection. In some rare cases, this condition may be delayed up to a year after infection
  • In certain rare cases and in some individuals the immune system has overcome the virus, providing evidence that the human body may be capable of tackling the virus. Such individuals are generally placed under constant observation and research work is being undertaken to understand the mechanism of resistance to HIV infection

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: May 5, 2015
Last updated: April 3, 2018