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Could it be HIV? Recognising the signs and symptoms of HIV seroconversion illness

Seroconversion illness is the illness that may occur if your body acquires HIV. Even though symptoms aren’t guaranteed, knowing about it could encourage you or a mate to get tested, access early treatment and maintain a healthy life.

Helping your GP help you

The number of new HIV diagnoses in Australia has remained steady over the past four years, with 1025 new cases reported by The Kirby Institute for 2015. Just over two thirds of those were attributed to sex between men. While a decent proportion of these cases may be identified by healthcare providers specialising in gay, bisexual and trans men’s health as well as HIV, there are still many diagnoses that aren’t.

Not every GP will have comprehensive knowledge or experience in testing for HIV, or communicating what an HIV positive diagnosis means. In some cases, GPs might not even consider performing tests for HIV or other common STIs, especially if guys aren’t forthcoming with information about what they’re getting up to sexually — and with whom.

“…what’s important here is making sure you’re equipped with enough knowledge to help your doctor help you manage your sexual health and wellbeing.”

Not all men who enjoy sex with other men identify as gay or bisexual. Consequently, GP’s gathering sexual history information might make incorrect assumptions about someone’s sexual behaviours and associated risk of acquiring HIV.

No matter what identity labels resonate with you and even if you’re not comfortable discussing the kind of sex you enjoy, what’s important here is making sure you’re equipped with enough knowledge to help your doctor help you manage your sexual health and wellbeing.

Having an affirming experience with a healthcare professional can make a huge difference for someone being diagnosed with HIV. Being confident and feeling supported to start treatment immediately after diagnosis has been demonstrated to have long term health benefits.

What is seroconversion?

Simply being exposed to HIV doesn’t always mean someone will acquire the virus and become HIV positive. And it’s not possible for all people living with HIV to transmit the virus — people who know they are HIV positive and use regular treatment to maintain an undetectable viral load for at least six months do not sexually transmit HIV. This means there is no risk of acquiring HIV from them, even when not using condoms.

“…not everyone is guaranteed to experience all seroconversion illness symptoms or even any at all.”

However, after someone has been exposed to HIV and the virus has been able to take hold in their body, seroconversion is the period of time during which the body’s immune system starts to respond. HIV antibodies are produced in an attempt to defend against the virus.

Seroconversion usually takes place within a few weeks of someone acquiring HIV. For some people, it may be accompanied by symptoms of illness, though these are not always a reliable way to diagnose HIV, especially as not everyone is guaranteed to experience all of the symptoms or even any at all.

What are the signs?

Knowing about the symptoms of seroconversion illness can be useful to help you or a mate stay healthy in the long term. Recognising the signs and going for an HIV test means someone has the chance to know their status and, if appropriate, start treatment straight away.

In 2015, over a quarter of new HIV diagnoses were in people with highly compromised immune systems, meaning it’s likely they had been living with untreated HIV for at least four years before their diagnosis, increasing the possibility of onward transmission as well as compromising their own health.

This short video produced by VAC (The Victorian AIDS Council) provides an overview of the potential symptoms to be aware of.

VAC | Could it be HIV?

It’s possible to easily confuse symptoms of HIV seroconversion illness with other illnesses, or even just a bad cold, though seroconversion illness doesn’t come with a runny nose. Sometimes described as ‘flu-like’ in nature, if symptoms are present, they may typically include one or more of the following:

  • Fever
  • Non-itchy rash (reddish, small, flat blemishes)
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pains
  • Tiredness

If any symptoms do occur, they often begin between one and four weeks after acquiring HIV and nearly always go away within two to three weeks. Symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes or tiredness can last for longer.

How can I be sure?

Most of these signs aren’t unique to HIV seroconversion illness. If you do happen to experience these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily acquired HIV. Going for an HIV test is the only way to be sure. Rapid testing services can make the process quick, easy and comfortable, and some are even offered for free. Discover where you can go for an HIV test at Time to Test.

As well as going for regular sexual health tests, you can also take other actions to help reduce your risk of acquiring HIV. Using a condom every time you have sex is a good strategy that’s been helping to protect millions of people since the start of the HIV epidemic.

“If you do happen to experience these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily acquired HIV. Going for an HIV test is the only way to be sure.”

Nowadays, there are even more options available, including biomedical HIV prevention strategies that are fully compatible with condoms. If you’re HIV negative, PrEP is a highly effective way to protect yourself against HIV. It involves taking a pill once a day and seeing a GP once every three months for routine sexual health tests.

We also now know that taking regular treatment for HIV not only keeps someone healthy, but also eliminates the possibility to transmit HIV — continuously maintaining an undetectable viral load for at least six months means there is no risk of HIV transmission. So you can feel confident in discussing this as a safe sex strategy with your partner(s) if they’re using treatment.

Biomedical strategies used without condoms are highly effective at preventing HIV, but they don’t protect against other STIs. While condoms can help to reduce the risk of acquiring an STI, they don’t eliminate it completely. Going for regular sexual health tests covering HIV and other STIs is a key foundation for managing your own health, as well as that of your sexual partner(s).

Where can I get support?

Some clinics in metro areas are well-versed in offering healthcare services for men who have sex with men. While you can request an HIV test from any GP, only certain GPs (known as S100 prescribers) are qualified to prescribe HIV treatments. You can find a list and a map of these HIV specialist GPs at the Australasian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (ASHM).

Talking to a healthcare professional is a good place to start, but if you feel like you could benefit from additional support, there are other organisations you can speak to, including some which offer counselling services or resources for people newly diagnosed with HIV. Contact your local AIDS Council or HIV organisation for more information.

Additionally, peer-run community group The Institute of Many (TIM) provides resources online, and via the TIM Facebook group for people living with HIV.

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