HIV guide

HIV complications


What if HIV is untreated?

Left undiagnosed and untreated, HIV infection generally progresses to AIDS within about 10 years of the initial exposure to the virus. By that time, the immune system has been significantly damaged, making it very hard to fight off even mild infections. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Strong flu-like symptoms (including headaches, muscle aches, sore throat, high fever, shaking chills and soaking night sweats)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Widespread skin rashes
  • Chronic diarrhea or weight loss
  • Chronic coughing or difficulty breathing
  • Dementia
  • Impaired vision

Without treatment, people infected with HIV are particularly susceptible to a number of infections, cancers and parasites...from pneumonia, tuberculosis and liver disease to herpes, hepatitis, meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord), non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and other diseases and complications. Caught early, however, HIV can be managed with treatment. That's why getting tested is so important.

HIV and AIDS

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 56,000 Americans become infected with HIV annually, and some 14,000 people with AIDS die every year in the United States. Remember, if you are tested and treated early, you can focus your energies on living with HIV... rather than being concerned about dying from the disease.

To minimize your risk of becoming infected or spreading the infection to others, get an HIV test if you think you might have been exposed to the virus...and continue to use latex condoms. Also, if you use a needle to inject drugs, be sure it's sterile and don't share it with anyone else.

HIV and pregnancy

Pregnant women with HIV may transmit the virus to their baby during pregnancy, delivery or while breastfeeding. But if women receive treatment for HIV infection during pregnancy, the risk to their babies is significantly reduced.

If you're pregnant and concerned about HIV, be sure to consult your regular doctor.

Last reviewed by Lisa Oldson, MD, January 2011.

Lisa Oldson, MD

STD expert

"The first thing I tell a patient about STDs is that if you're worried about one STD, you should probably worry about all STDs. In other words, if you had unprotected sex and you're worried about a possible HIV exposure, it's important to understand that hepatitis can be spread in the same fashion...ditto for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis."