Understanding the process of HIV seroconversion and the symptoms are key factors in early detection and treatment of HIV infection. This article will first explain what seroconversion is, and then outline the symptoms of seroconversion. If you are exposed to HIV and exhibit any of these symptoms within the first 2-6 weeks of exposure, visit your doctor immediately.
Seroconversion describes the process of the body's immune response to either infection or immunisation. When the immune system detects an antigen (virus, bacteria, toxins, etc), antibodies are made and can be detected in blood tests. This process of creating detectable antibodies to a specific antigen is called seroconversion. In HIV specifically, individuals are considered seropositive when HIV antibodies are detectable in blood tests.
HIV Seroconversion: Acute Infection Phase
For two weeks to three months after exposure to HIV, individuals may experience what is considered the acute infection phase. This is the time during which seroconversion occurs. The body is recognising the HIV virus and producing antibodies to try to fight the infection. The immune system becomes overwhelmed, and physical symptoms develop. Often, the symptoms are manageable, although some individuals may required medical treatment and even hospitalisation. By the end of the acute infection phase, the body has generally produced enough antibodies to be detected in a routine HIV test. At this point, a positive HIV antibody test results in the diagnosis of HIV infection.
Symptoms of HIV Seroconversion
The symptoms of acute HIV infection (seroconversion) are similar to the flu or mononucleosis. Individuals may experience headache, aching muscles, fatigue and fever. Symptoms may also include nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. In some cases, a sore throat, mouth ulcers and a rash may also be present. In almost all acute infection phases, the lymph nodes will be swollen as a result of the body's immune response to the introduction of HIV.
The only reliable and definitive way to confirm HIV seroconversion is through a blood test. An HIV test may not give reliable results after exposure for up to six months, so it's important to retest within six months of exposure. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control recommends annual testing for individuals at high risk of HIV infection.
Treatment During Seroconversion
If HIV infection can be detected during the seroconversion phase, immediate and aggressive anti-retroviral therapy (ART) has been shown to be effective in significantly reducing viral loads, sometimes to undetectable levels. While ART therapy may be effective at all stages of HIV/AIDS disease progression, it is particularly effective during the seroconversion period, so an understanding and recognising of symptoms of HIV seroconversion becomes even more critical.
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