anonymous on September 2, 2011

One of my past sexual partners might be HIV-positive...what should I do?

Recently, I heard that a girl I slept with a few months ago might be HIV-positive. I went and got tested the day that I heard and am waiting for the results. My question is about HIV symptoms. I’ve been checking for swollen lymph glands and there’s a tiny bump under my armpit – it’s the color of my flesh and isn’t tender. I think I’ve had it since I was a kid…but I’m worried. And if I had KS lesions, how noticeable would they be? I’m nervous!

answered by Daniel Perlman, MD, MBA on September 2, 2011

First, I commend you for taking control of the situation and getting tested. It’s important to take action if you think you may have been exposed to HIV – or any other STDs. Before I address your question about symptoms, though, allow me to share with you some information about when to get tested for HIV…

How much time passed before you got tested? It can take weeks, or even months, for an STD to show up on a test. And the testing window (the time between exposure to an STD and detection of an STD) varies from one STD to another. If you were tested less than three months after your potential exposure to HIV, I encourage you to get tested again at three months.

That said, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people infected with HIV will develop detectable antibodies within 25 days of exposure…and 97% of people will have HIV antibodies by three months after exposure.

Now, about HIV symptomsHIV is often “silent” (no symptoms) and many people who have the virus don’t know they’re infected unless they get tested. If symptoms do show up in the first month, they commonly include:
  • Fever, chills, night sweats and other flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rashes or swollen lymph glands

As you might guess, these symptoms are very common to other conditions and do not necessary indicate HIV.

Later, as the immune system weakens, HIV-positive patients may experience anything from diarrhea and weight loss to chronic coughing, difficulty breathing, tiredness, joint pain and a range of other conditions and complications from HIV.

The bump under your armpit may be a swollen lymph gland, but it could also be a mole, a lipoma (harmless fatty tissue growing under the skin) or something else entirely. Even if you do have a swollen lymph gland, it may not be a symptom of HIV. Swollen lymph glands are common symptoms of many different conditions, including the common cold.

Just like swollen lymph glands, a dry cough can mean a variety of things. It may be due to your smoking habit, a common cold or something more serious.

Once you have your STD test results, your regular doctor will be able to better diagnose your symptoms and administer treatment, if necessary,

As for KS (Kaposi’s Sarcoma)…it is a later complication of HIV. If you do test positive from HIV from the recent sexual encounter you described, it’s highly unlikely that you would show KS so soon. If you do get KS lesions, they show up most often on the legs, feet, face and genitals…and they’ll generally be purple, red, brown or pink. Again, be sure to share your symptoms with your regular doctor for a specific diagnosis.

Finally, I’d like to offer you some comfort. It’s okay to feel nervous about your test results, but there’s no need to panic…even if it turns out that you have an STD. Many STDs can be quickly cured or and effectively managed. And if you have HIV, treatment can help keep your immune system as strong as possible, for as long as possible…and slow down or even avoid dangerous complications from HIV, like KS or AIDS.

There are many HIV-positive people who, with proper treatment, live normal lives for a long time. But early detection is key…the earlier HIV and other STDs are identified through regular testing, the sooner you can get treated…and the better for your overall, long-term health. As well, be sure to use protection with every sexual encounter to cut down your risk for STDs.

I wish you good health and peace of mind.

Daniel Perlman, MD, MBA

Dr. Perlman is a Colorado-based infectious disease specialist (including HIV and other STDs) in private practice at Greater Denver Infectious Diseases. Additionally, he is Assistant Clinical Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Dr. Perlman was educated at theUniversity of Maryland School of Medicine, and completed his residency in internal medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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