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Kaposi's sarcoma - lesion on the foot
Kaposi's sarcoma - lesion on the foot

Primary HIV infection
Primary HIV infection

Kaposi's sarcoma - perianal
Kaposi's sarcoma - perianal

Immune system structures
Immune system structures


Acute HIV infection is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that gradually destroys the immune system.

Alternative Names:

Primary HIV infection; HIV seroconversion syndrome; Acute retroviral syndrome

Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

Primary or acute HIV infection is a condition that occurs 2 - 4 weeks after infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The virus is spread by:

  • Breastfeeding (rarely)
  • Contaminated blood transfusions and blood products
  • Intravenous (IV) drug use with contaminated needles and syringes
  • Passing through the placenta from the mother to the fetus
  • Sexual contact

After someone is infected with HIV, tests can detect antibodies to the virus in the blood. This is called HIV seroconversion (converting from HIV negative to HIV positive), and usually occurs within 3 months of exposure, but on rare occasions can occur up to a year after exposure.

Following the acute infection, there may be no further evidence of illness for the next 10 years.

Acute HIV infection can, but does not always, progress to early symptomatic HIV infection and to advanced HIV disease (AIDS ).

Not all people infected with HIV will necessarily progress to AIDS, but time has shown that the vast majority do. To date there are a small number of people who have tested positive for HIV, but later no longer test positive and have no signs of disease. Although this is relatively rare, it provides evidence that the human body may be capable of removing the disease. These people are being carefully watched and studied.

HIV has spread throughout the United States and other countries. Higher numbers of people with the disease are found in large metropolitan centers, inner cities, and among certain populations with high-risk behaviors.


Note: At the time of diagnosis with HIV, many people have not experienced any symptoms.

Acute HIV infection can appear like infectious mononucleosis , flu , or other viral illnesses.

Any of the following symptoms can occur:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Malaise
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Muscle stiffness or aching
  • Rash
  • Sore throat
  • Ulcers of the mouth and esophagus

These symptoms can last from a few days to 4 weeks, and then subside.

Signs and tests:
  • Blood differential may show abnormalities.
  • HIV ELISA/Western blot is usually negative or undetermined during the acute infection and will become positive over the next 3 months.
  • HIV RNA viral load is positive in patients with acute HIV infection.
  • Lower than normal CD4 count may indicate suppression of the immune system. The CD4 count usually improves 1 - 2 months after acute infection.
  • P24 antigen blood test is often positive.


People with HIV infection need to be educated about the disease and its treatment so they can be active partners in making decisions with their health care provider.

There is still controversy about whether aggressive early treatment of HIV infection with HIV medications will slow the progression of disease. You should discuss this option with your health care provider.

Follow these healthy practices in the early stages of HIV infection:

  • Avoid exposure to people with acute infectious illnesses.
  • Avoid settings and situations that could lead to depression. Maintain positive social contacts, hobbies, interests, and pets.
  • Eat a nutritious diet with enough calories.
  • Get enough exercise, but don't wear yourself out.
  • Keep stress to a minimum.
  • Practice safer sex. The disease is highly transmissible, especially in the first months after infection.

Support Groups:

You can often reduce the stress of illness by joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems. See AIDS - support group .

Expectations (prognosis):

HIV is a long-term medical condition that can be treated but not yet cured. There are effective means of preventing complications and delaying (but not preventing) progression to AIDS. At the present time, not all cases of HIV have progressed to AIDS, but time has shown that the vast majority do.


Calling your health care provider:

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have had a possible or actual exposure to AIDS or HIV infection, or if you are at risk and have had symptoms like those of acute HIV infection.


For a comprehensive discussion, see the prevention section in AIDS .

Safer sex behaviors may reduce the risk of getting the infection. There is still a risk of getting infected with HIV, even if you practice "safe sex," because condoms can break. Abstinence is the only sure way to prevent sexual transmission of the HIV virus.

General guidelines:

  • Do not have unprotected sexual intercourse with numerous partners, any person who has multiple partners, people who use IV drugs, or people you know or suspect are infected with AIDS.
  • Avoid intravenous drugs. If you do use IV drugs, do not share needles or syringes.
  • People with AIDS or who have had positive HIV antibody tests can pass the disease on to others and should not donate blood, plasma, body organs, or sperm. Do not exchange body fluids during sexual activity.

Review Date: 11/1/2007
Reviewed By: Kenneth M. Wener, M.D., Department of Infectious Diseases, Lahey Clinic, Burlington, MA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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