The Three Stages Of HIV
When people with HIV are left untreated, the virus will generally phase through three stages, getting more severe and life-threatening with each new stage. However, it’s important to note that HIV treatment and medications can slow and even prevent further progression of the disease. Thanks to modern advancements in medicine, progression all the way to Stage 3 is far less common than it was when HIV first found its way to the United States.
Stage 1, also known as Acute HIV Infection, occurs just after exposure and infection with HIV. This is the time when individuals have a large amount of HIV in their blood and are highly contagious to others. Some will experience flu-like symptoms such as fatigue or sore throat. This is the body’s natural attempt to fight off the infection, but some patients will not feel sick right away, if at all. Only antigen/antibody tests or nucleic acid tests (NATs) can properly diagnose an acute HIV infection.
Stage 2, also known as Chronic HIV Infection, asymptomatic HIV infection or clinical latency, is the next step in the progression of untreated HIV wherein the virus is still active but reproduces at very low levels. Like with acute HIV infection, patients may not experience any symptoms of feeling sick at all during this phase. For many patients, this phase may last a decade or longer without treatment before progressing to AIDS, but this depends on the individual. Those in Phase 2 are still contagious and can transmit HIV to others. If HIV is diagnosed and treated as prescribed during this phase, they may never move on to Stage 3.
At the end of Stage 2, the amount of HIV in the blood goes up and the CD4 cell count goes down. CD4 cells, also known as T-cells, T-lymphocytes or helper cells, are white blood cells that play an important role in the immune system. As the virus levels increase and helper cells decrease, the infected individual may start to feel symptoms as the virus moves into Stage 3.
Stage 3, known as AIDS, is the most severe progression of HIV infection. Typically, HIV will turn into AIDS in about 8 to 10 years when left untreated. When a person has AIDS, their immune systems are so badly damaged that they may contract an increasing number of severe illnesses called opportunistic infections. Those with HIV are considered to have AIDS once their CD4 cell count drops below 200 cells/mm or if they develop certain severe illnesses. As with the previous stages, people with AIDS are very infectious and can easily transmit the disease to others. Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive around three years.