Course of the infection
HIV no longer inevitably leads to AIDS. If the HIV infection is diagnosed early, HIV medications can stop the progress of the disease.
Many people, however, first find out about their HIV infection when they become seriously ill. In the first months or years, there are few or no noticeable signs of the virus. If you have been exposed to a risk of infection, you should have an HIV test to determine whether you have been infected.
Untreated HIV infection progresses differently from person to person. Often, flu-like symptoms appear shortly after the initial infection. Then, for a long time, nothing may be noticeable. But during this time, the virus continues to replicate in the body.
Finally, the body's defense, the immune system, is badly weakened and the person suffers from more and more infectious illnesses. But even at this stage, HIV medications can stop the course of the infection and the immune system can recover.
In the beginning
Shortly after the initial infection with HIV, the virus replicates in the body very rapidly. 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 rash. They disappear after one or two weeks of their own accord, and are often incorrectly believed to be the flu or an intestinal infection.
During this first phase of the illness, an especially large amount of virus 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 then particularly high at this time.
Production of antibodies
In the first three months, the body's own defense systems react to the HIV infection by generating so-called antibodies. Antibodies work by disarming the pathogens that cause the illness, making them harmless. Unfortunately, this process doesn't work as well with HIV as it does with other illnesses, such as measles or mumps. 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 and there is a test for them. This is how some tests for HIV infection work (HIV-antibody test, HIV test).
In the following months and years, HIV replicates in the body, often unnoticed, and during this time it can cause lasting 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, is 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 medication, there comes a time when the immune system is 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 unchecked. 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.
The replication of the virus can be prevented with medication. HIV medication must be taken regularly and on a long-term basis. In most cases, the number of viruses in the body sinks until the virus is no longer detectable by normal methods.
Once the virus is no longer replicating, the immune system suffers no further damage and can recover again. The illness no longer progresses to AIDS.
It is important to begin therapy early enough so that HIV cannot badly damage the body in the first place.