HIV: Risk factors, symptoms and diagnosis

Zee Media Bureau/Liji Varghese

New Delhi: Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a life threatening virus that cause Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in humans leading to failure of immune system.

According to WHO 2012 data approximately 35.3 million people were living with HIV globally.

Major risk factors include:

-Unsafe anal or vaginal sex

-Using contaminated needles

-Breast milk

-Perinatal transmission (transmission from an infected mother to her baby at birth)

-Having other sexually transmitted infection such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and bacterial vaginosis

- Blood transfusions, medical procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing

Signs and Symptoms

The count of helper T cells, specifically CD4+ T cells decreases drastically and viral load increase in an infected person.

Symptoms of HIV vary depending on the stage of infection.

The four basis stages of infection include:

Incubation period: This period usually lasts between two and four week and is asymptomatic.

Acute infection: This period last an average of 28 days and the infected person at this stage shows symptoms like fever, lymphadenopathy, sore throat, muscle pain, rash, malaise, and mouth and esophageal sores.

Latency stage: This stage last anywhere from two weeks to twenty years and beyond and shows few or no symptoms.

AIDS: The CD4+ T cell count of a person at this stage drops below to a critical level of 200 cells per µL, shows symptoms of various opportunistic infections and loses cell-mediated immunity.

As the infection progresses the person's immune system weakens. The individual can develop other signs and symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, fever, diarrhoea and cough. If left untreated for long it can also cause severe illnesses such as tuberculosis, cryptococcal meningitis, and cancer.


Diagnosis of HIV is difficult as the person infected may be unaware of the presence of the virus. Initially the virus is detected with an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). The specimens with a reactive ELISA result are retested in duplicate. In case the specimen is repeatedly reactive it undergoes confirmatory testing like Western blot or an immunofluorescence assay (IFA).


Currently there is no available vaccine or cure for HIV or AIDS. However, effective treatment with antiretroviral drugs can control the virus so that people with HIV can enjoy healthy and productive lives.