Without medical intervention, AIDS progresses along a typical course. Within one to three weeks after infection with HIV, most people experience flu-like symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, headache, skin rash, tender lymph nodes, and a vague feeling of discomfort. These symptoms last one to four weeks. During this phase, known as acute retroviral syndrome, HIV reproduces rapidly in the blood. The virus circulates in the blood throughout the body, particularly concentrating in organs of the lymphatic system.
The normal immune defenses against viral infections eventually activate to battle HIV in the body, reducing but not eliminating HIV in the blood. Infected individuals typically enter a prolonged asymptomatic phase, a symptom-free period that can last ten years or more. While persons who have HIV may remain in good health during this period, HIV continues to replicate, progressively destroying the immune system. Often an infected person remains unaware that he or she carries HIV and unknowingly transmits the virus to others during this phase of the infection.
When HIV infection reduces the number of CD4 cells to around 200 per microliter of blood, the infected individual enters an early symptomatic phase that may last a few months to several years. HIV-infected persons in this stage may experience a variety of symptoms that are not life-threatening but may be debilitating. These symptoms include extensive weight loss and fatigue (wasting syndrome), periodic fever, recurring diarrhea, and thrush, a fungal mouth infection. An early symptom of HIV infection in women is a recurring vaginal yeast infection. Unlike earlier stages of the disease, in this early symptomatic phase the symptoms that develop are severe enough to cause people to seek medical treatment. Many may first learn of their infection in this phase.