What are the phases of the HIV timeline?

What are the phases of the HIV timeline?

When discussing Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV, the first reactions received are often shock and fear. Generally, our notions about this disease stem from misinformation regarding its transmission and treatments. It is fair to say that most of us assume that HIV is the same as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS.

But did you know that AIDS is the 3rd or final stage of HIV? An HIV infection can culminate into AIDS only when the virus goes untreated for a long time. Another fact worth noting is that, while there is no cure for this virus, early diagnosis and treatment can prevent its transmission to others and help HIV+ patients live long and healthy lives.

Fighting this endemic demands constant research and development in medical diagnostic products and equipment. Helvetica Health Care (HHC) based in Geneva is a reputed supplier of the: RETRO-TEK HIV-1 p24 Antigen ELISAan enzyme-linked immunoassay that can detect Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1 (HIV-1) p24 antigen in research specimens, including cell culture media, as well as human sera and plasma. 

In one of our previous articles, we debunked some myths about HIV and AIDS.

Here, we discuss the phases of an HIV infection to help you understand how it progresses and how it affects the patients at each stage in its timeline.

What is HIV? 

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, as the name suggests, affects and compromises a body’s immune system. An HIV-infected person is easily prone to additional, severe infections and diseases such as cancer. But there are many stages of this infection, each of which has potential complications and symptoms. In most cases, the virus stays in the infected person’s body for life. However, it is only when HIV goes untreated for a long time that the damaged immune system becomes ineffective, leading to eventual fatality.

What are the stages in the HIV timeline?

HIV – A brief timeline: In the first stage, the person will likely experience flu-like symptoms like fatigue and fever after exposure to the virus. In the second stage, often, there are no symptoms, or the symptoms can be varied, and this phase can last very long. In the third stage – AIDS, the symptoms are often confused with HIV symptoms, although an immune system compromised by AIDS may produce them.

Let’s understand each of these stages in detail.

Stage 1 – Acute HIV infection

Stage 1, also called Acute HIV infection or Acute retroviral syndrome (ARS), is the earliest stage of HIV when a person is exposed to the virus. Generally, ARS develops 2-4 weeks immediately after the infection. HIV is highly transmissible during this time as the virus multiplies and spreads rapidly throughout the body.

The virus destroys the CD4 cells (CD4 T lymphocytes), which are essential to fighting infections and thereby compromising the body’s immune system. At this stage, the patient may observe fever or flu symptoms. In some instances, there may be no symptoms. At this point, however, it is crucial to undergo testing. If the virus goes undetected at this early stage, the disease will continue to progress without being detected, and treatments may not start at the right time.

Some of the most common symptoms at the ARS stage are:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • muscle or joint pain
  • headaches
  • night sweats
  • skin rashes
  • ulcers in the mouth
  • a sore throat
  • swollen glands or lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or groin 
  • nausea or vomiting

Together, these signs signify seroconversion illness, which indicates the body’s response and defence mechanism against infection as it tries to eradicate the virus. However, once a virus is present, the human body cannot eliminate it. This process settles eventually.

The immune system lessens virus particles, and CD4 T cell counts could increase. However, the quantity of these cells may not go back to what it was. The patient then enters the phase of chronic infection. The acute stage may not necessarily be followed immediately by the chronic stage.

Stage 2 – Chronic Infection

By the end of the acute stage, the infected person should have received treatment. If not, the disease progresses to chronic infection wherein the virus stays active in the body and reproduces at lower levels but continues to damage the immune system. During this stage, the infected person is asymptomatic or experiences very mild symptoms but can transmit HIV to others. In the medical field, this stage is often called clinical latency. Some may continue to experience symptoms, which may vary in degrees of severity:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • coughing or breathing difficulties
  • diarrhoea
  • unexpected weight loss

Clinical latency, also known as asymptomatic HIV infection, can last 10-15 years. If the infected person is not treated at this point, HIV will develop into AIDS – the 3rd and final stage of HIV – AIDS. 

Stage 3 – AIDS 

AIDS is the 3rd and the most advanced stage of HIV infection, when the immune system is completely damaged and can no longer fight off the virus. If no treatment has been administered by this stage, the viral load keeps rising, and the CD4 cell count drops simultaneously. A CD4 cell count lower than 200 cells per cubic millilitre (mm3) of blood indicates that the HIV infection has progressed to its advanced and final stage; the normal range is 500 to 1,600 cells/mm3. Often, AIDS can be diagnosed simply by observing the person’s general health.

At this point, the body becomes very susceptible to contracting an opportunistic infection or AIDS-defining illnesses such as:

  • skin cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma)
  • pneumocystis pneumonia (a lung disease),
  • salmonella,
  • herpes,
  • Candidiasis, etc.

These occur more often and are most severe in those with a weakened immune system. An AIDS patient may suffer from the following symptoms that often occur due to a specific opportunistic infection.

They include:

  • persistent coughing
  • night sweats
  • fever
  • regular infections
  • chronic and severe diarrhoea
  • unexpected weight loss
  • yeast infections in the vagina, mouth, or throat
  • stubborn marks and spots on the skin
  • unexplained bruising and wounds
  • Excessive fatigue


Viral load before and after ART

With the help of modern and advanced treatment options like antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV patients, when diagnosed early in the disease, can live a healthy and long life. Without treatment, people diagnosed with AIDS have a life span of 3 years or less due to infections. Modern antiretroviral drugs can limit the spread of the infection.

ART medications significantly lower the body’s viral load, or the amount of HIV, to extremely low levels. HIV can no longer harm the immune system or spread to other people when the viral load is so low that testing cannot detect it. This state is sometimes called “U=U” or “undetectable equals untransmittable.” With effective ART treatment, most patients are unlikely to develop stage 3 HIV, which may reduce the chances of opportunistic infections.

Early detection of HIV can be lifesaving. To fight this disease, constant efforts in research and development of ways to diagnose and treat this deadly virus. To this effect, HHC is one of the most trusted suppliers of products and lab solutions essential to detecting HIV, such as the RETRO-TEK HIV-1 p24 Antigen ELISA. It can be used to monitor the purification and biochemical behaviour of HIV-1 or determine the titer of HIV-1-based lentiviral samples. Since the amino acid sequence of p24 is well conserved among the various HIV-1 isolates, this assay detects p24 from HIV-1 clades A-F. There is no cross-reactivity to Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type-2 (HIV-2), Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) or Human T-Cell Leukemia Virus Types I and II (HTLV I and II) p24 or any gag gene product.Get complete information about our products and services on our website: https://www.h-h-c.com/ or speak to one of our marketing heads, who will tell you everything you need to know about what we do. We are happy to answer all your questions.