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Talking about HIV is hard. It’s a complex and frightening illness, and getting the answers can seem daunting.
To make matters worse, the virus can hide for years, making it hard to diagnose. Just how long can HIV stay dormant?
A body’s reaction to the virus is what dictates how long HIV can stay dormant. HIV infection has three stages: acute HIV infection, chronic HIV, and AIDS.
The acute stage lasts between two and four weeks, and people often mistake it for the flu.
After this, HIV goes dormant and chips away at the immune system during the chronic HIV stage. Many people do not feel sick during this stage and wonder, “how long can HIV go undiagnosed?” The chronic stage can hide HIV for up to 20 years, and many people don’t know they have HIV.
At Rapid STD Testing, we put together this guide to explain the stages of HIV and how long it can stay dormant in your system.
HIV begins with infection. The virus passes from person to person via bodily fluids, primarily blood, semen, and vaginal fluids.
People tend to associate HIV infection with sexual contact between an infected person and their sexual partners. However, there are other avenues of infection, such as infection at birth from a mother carrying the virus or sharing injection equipment like needles and syringes. It is important to note that while not impossible, you are not likely to contract HIV from STDs on clothing.
After the initial infection, the first stage, known as acute retroviral syndrome (ARS), emerges in two to four weeks. ARS’ onset destroys many of the T-cells (immune cells) giving it a foothold of host cells in the infected body.
Fever is the most common symptom, but headaches, sore throat, fatigue, chills, muscle pain, mouth ulcers, and swollen lymph nodes are also possible during the acute phase. Between 40% and 90% of infected individuals experience flu-like symptoms after infection.
However, some infected people remain asymptomatic during the acute phase. This simply means that the rate of cellular destruction is slow, but it does not mean the virus is any less potent in the long run.
After the acute period, HIV enters the chronic stage. Viral loads drop drastically, and symptoms mellow or disappear. This is called latency, and it’s one reason HIV is so dangerous.
How long can HIV hide in your body during the chronic stage? Much like dormant trichomoniasis, the chronic stage of HIV is so subtle that people live up to 10 or 20 years without a diagnosis. Sadly, while the symptoms may subside, the virus continues multiplying itself and whittling away at the immune system.
Once HIV drives T-cell counts low enough, the last stage begins. AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is HIV’s final stage. AIDS signifies that the body’s immune system can’t effectively fight infections, and devastating symptoms emerge quickly.
Persistent fevers over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, severe chills and night sweats, thrush in the mouth (a type of yeast infection), genital warts, anal sores, rashes, breathing problems, severe weight loss, headaches, memory problems, and pneumonia are common symptoms that infected people suffer during this stage.
Though HIV is a scary diagnosis to receive with no cure, there is hope. Modern treatments can make the infection’s viral load so small that it becomes undetectable.
To help infected people reach an undetectable status, doctors prescribe medicines known as antiretroviral drugs. This process is called antiretroviral therapy (ART).
Antiretroviral drugs suppress HIV and prevent it from replicating in the body. This is one of the best reasons to get a 10-panel std test for HIV as early as possible at a Rapid STD Testing clinic near you. Antiretroviral therapy is at its most effective when the disease is in its early stages because it can stop the disease from affecting your immune system.
To achieve undetectable status, you must reach a viral load of fewer than 50 HIV copies per milliliter of blood.
Unfortunately, even with an undetectable viral load, HIV remains transmissible in a few scenarios. Mothers can still pass the virus on to their children during pregnancy or birth, and it is still possible to transmit the virus via shared injection equipment. Research shows that HIV can survive in a used syringe for up to 42 days, so always use clean equipment.
It is extremely important to note that undetectable does not mean cured. Antiretroviral therapy is an ongoing form of treatment that requires consistent adherence. Skipping doses or discontinuing use will result in a resurgence of the virus. You can think of it like this: The antiretroviral drugs put the virus to “sleep,” but it will “wake up” if the drugs disappear.
People who follow the prescribed protocol can reach undetectable status in one to six months. After that point, it takes six months of continued antiretroviral therapy to become “durably undetectable.”
Undetectable HIV can indeed become detectable again. If an infected person doesn’t follow the treatment protocols, viral loads will return to detectable levels. This is especially true for individuals in the first six months of antiretroviral therapy.
It is very important to be as consistent as possible when treating HIV to reach undetectable status. Interrupting therapy or missing doses can create serious problems and make it more difficult to suppress the virus. The worst-case scenario is for the virus to become drug resistant. This can happen if therapy stops and starts too often.
Research shows that HIV advances two times faster in people who underwent sporadic ART than in people who were consistently in ART.
After achieving an undetectable status, it’s important to continue therapy for the next six months. Can dormant HIV be transmitted? Achieving undetectable HIV and maintaining it for six months means that you can no longer transmit the disease through sex.
The virus can still resurface after this. Take charge of your undetectable status and protect it with regular tests for viral load and continued therapy for successful treatment.
Even if you do not notice any symptoms of HIV, if you are sexually active or share injection equipment with someone else, you are subject to potential exposure. It is absolutely the best course of action to test for HIV as soon as possible. Can HIV be detected if dormant? The good news is that, yes, even dormant HIV is detectable.
There are three types of tests available for diagnosing HIV.
Antibody tests look for the HIV antibodies in blood or saliva. Antigen/antibody tests look for antigens and antibodies in blood. And the nucleic acid test (NAT) looks for the actual virus in an individual’s blood. The nucleic acid test is the most effective test of the three.
A NAT can detect HIV sooner than any other test, and since it can reliably find the virus in a sample, it is the standard for determining viral load in people with HIV.
Each test has a specific “window period” that determines when the test becomes effective for use. Testing outside this period may result in a false negative, so be honest with your doctor about any circumstances you could have been exposed to HIV.
Antibody tests can detect HIV 23 to 90 days after exposure. Antigen/antibody tests have a window period of 18 to 90 days after exposure. Nucleic acid tests can detect HIV 10 to 30 days after exposure.
Detecting HIV early is the best bet for a healthy life with HIV. Regardless of symptoms or lack thereof, if HIV is present, it is growing. Detecting HIV early allows infected people to start ART and preserve as much of their immune system functions as possible.
Early detection also helps to prevent the catastrophic spread of this devastating disease. Since HIV can hide in infected individuals for decades without a diagnosis, they can transmit the virus to a shocking number of people. Even one transmission is one transmission too many.
Living a long, healthy life with HIV is possible if you stay consistent with ART.
Every year in the United States, roughly 38,000 people receive an HIV diagnosis. Left untreated, HIV will evolve into AIDS, and once this happens, people only live an average of three years.
During those last years, infected people endure painful symptoms and opportunistic infections, including fevers over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, severe chills and night sweats, severe weight loss, headaches, memory problems, and pneumonia.
The good news is that it is possible to live a full, happy life by treating HIV before it progresses to the AIDS stage. Thanks to modern medicine, HIV never has to get this far. Undergoing consistent antiretroviral therapy can prevent AIDS from ever emerging for an HIV-positive person.
Managing HIV is a lifelong fight, but there are people who will fight it alongside you. Getting a team of physicians in your corner who understand HIV, following their directions, and getting tested regularly is the best way to ensure your quality of life remains as good as it can while you fight to live well with the virus.
There are also many global, national, and local organizations that support people with HIV. Ask your healthcare providers to help you find organizations and resources that can improve your quality of life.
With an early diagnosis and the right treatment, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives. They can work, date, have a life partner, and have healthy children. With consistent antiretroviral treatment, it is possible for people with HIV to live just as long as people without the virus. There are so many opportunities for people to live a great life with HIV, so don’t let a positive test cause you to lose hope.
It is not too late to start that journey. Be honest with yourself, and be honest with your healthcare providers. HIV is not something you have to suffer with in silence.
HIV is an uphill battle, but it is one you can win. You can live a good life with HIV. How long can HIV stay dormant? The answer is up to you. With treatment, you never have to undergo the pain of AIDS, and you are not alone.
Rapid STD Testing offers same-day std testing, rapid std tests, and reliable at-home std testing kits. Call or visit one of our state-of-the-art testing centers, or order our convenient at-home STD testing kits straight to your doorstep.
Take the first step. Get tested. Get treated. Live well.