The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, can wreck havoc on the immune system, leading to life-threatening infections. HIV can eventually cause Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, more commonly known as AIDS. HIV typically enters the body through unprotected sexual intercourse or blood to blood contacts such as sharing needles. It is important to remember that someone can live with HIV for a very long time before they develop AIDS – and some people with HIV might never develop AIDS at all.
So, What Is the HIV Incubation Period?
The definition of an incubation period is the time elapsed between being exposed and seeing the first symptoms. There are three noted stages of HIV infection.
1. Acute HIV Infection
This stage occurs within two to six weeks after the actual exposure and infection. This is when the body recognizes a foreign invader and mounts a fight against it. At this point it’s important to consider that HIV might be in your body, and take steps to talk to your doctor about testing.
- HIV Incubation period in this stage starts within two to six weeks after exposure and might last for up to two weeks, just like the typical flu.
- Symptoms are mainly flu-like symptoms, which can include headache, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, aching all over, being very tired, having a rash all over your body, a sore throat and high fever. All of these symptoms are the result of your immune system fighting against the virus.
- Treatment Options: If the possibility of an HIV infection is caught very early, such as in a healthcare worker who was exposed to HIV-positive blood, treatment started immediately can halt the virus and lead to a clean bill of health.
2. Chronic HIV Infection
During this stage, all symptoms tend to go away, but it is in your body, working away at destroying the immune system. Even so, it’s possible that you could get the flu, a cold, or other illnesses and recover just fine thanks to the parts of your immune system that are still intact.
- Incubation period: You might go for up to ten years or decades without another sign of HIV. Remember, during this HIV incubation period, it is very easy to transmit the virus to someone else.
- Symptoms: During this time, there are typically no symptoms for a while. Among the first symptoms to show up, usually years later, include fever, feeling tired all the time, swollen lymph nodes and weight loss. You might also notice diarrhea, oral yeast infections, and recurring outbreaks of herpes zoster, or shingles.
3. AIDS Infection
By this time, the HIV has ravaged your immune system, damaging it to the point where it is vulnerable to almost any infection that might occur. Doctors determine the progression of HIV infection to AIDS based on the CD4 cells in your body. When you drop below 200 CD4 cells per cubic millimeter of blood, then you are considered to have AIDS. However, those who are taking aggressive medications might never progress to this point.
- Symptoms: At this point the symptoms have worsened and now include long-lasting fevers, night sweats, feeling very fatigued, swollen lymph nodes (especially in the groin or neck), weight loss with no explanation, shortness of breath, diarrhea that lasts a long time and can become very severe, yeast infections in the mouth or throat (and in the vagina in women), easy bruising, unexplained bleeding, and purple spots on the skin that never seem to go away.
- Treatment: Those who haven’t been treated until AIDS arrives are in a tough spot. Without proper treatment, those affected usually only survive for three years, and an opportunistic infection lowers that life expectancy to one year. However, those who take a “cocktail” of powerful drugs to rebuild the immune system might be able to live with AIDS for much longer. Preventative medications can have serious side effects, but they might be worth it for those who want to extend their life.
How Does HIV Infection Spread?
There are numerous ways to spread the HIV infection. This is especially easy to do during the HIV incubation period. It can be transferred through unprotected anal or vaginal sex, needle sharing, oral sex, from a mother to the baby during pregnancy or childbirth, or in some rare cases, even through breastfeeding. Unclean equipment used to pierce or tattoo might also be a way of getting HIV, though this is exceedingly rare.
It is very important to remember that even during the incubation period, the virus cannot be passed to another by drinking from the same cup, shaking hands, insects, animals hugging, coughing, swimming together or sharing the same food. Remember that bodily fluids have to be exchanged, especially blood and sexual fluids, in order to pass the infection to others.
To learn more, check out this video.