When people with HIV don’t get treatment, they typically progress through three stages. But HIV medicine can slow or prevent progression of the disease. With the advancements in treatment, progression to Stage 3 is less common today than in the early days of HIV.

What are the stages of HIV?

  • Stage 1: Acute HIV Infection


    People have a large amount of HIV in their blood. They are very contagious. Some people have flu-like symptoms. This is the body’s natural response to infection. But some people may not feel sick right away or at all. If you have flu-like symptoms and think you may have been exposed to HIV, seek medical care and ask for a test to diagnose acute infection. Only antigen/antibody tests or nucleic acid tests (NATs) can diagnose acute infection.

  • Stage 2: Chronic HIV Infection

    This stage is also called asymptomatic HIV infection or clinical latency. HIV is still active but reproduces at very low levels. People may not have any symptoms or get sick during this phase. Without taking HIV medicine, this period may last a decade or longer, but some may progress faster. People can transmit HIV in this phase. At the end of this phase, the amount of HIV in the blood (called viral load) goes up and the CD4 cell count goes down. The person may have symptoms as the virus levels increase in the body, and the person moves into Stage 3. People who take HIV medicine as prescribed may never move into Stage 3.

  • Stage 3: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)


    The most severe phase of HIV infection. People with AIDS have such badly damaged immune systems that they get an increasing number of severe illnesses, called opportunistic infections. People receive an AIDS diagnosis when their CD4 cell count drops below 200 cells/mm, or if they develop certain opportunistic infections. People with AIDS can have a high viral load and be very infectious. Without treatment, people with AIDS typically survive about three years.

What should I do if I just got diagnosed with HIV?

First, take a deep breath. Give yourself some time to process the news but keep in mind the sooner you take action, the more likely you are to have a long and healthy life.

If you got your diagnosis in a health care provider’s office or a setting like a health fair or testing event, you probably got a lot of information about HIV, its treatment, and how to stay healthy. If you did not get much information, this website is a good place to start.

If you got a diagnosis by taking one of the two FDA-approved HIV home test kits, the manufacturers can help you with the next steps. Both manufacturers provide confidential counseling and, depending on the test you used, will give you either a referral to get a follow-up test or will perform a follow-up test on the blood sample that you submitted.

What is HIV treatment?

HIV treatment involves taking medicines that slow the progression of the virus in your body. HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus, and the combination of drugs used to treat it is called antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Although a cure for HIV does not yet exist, ART can keep you healthy for many years, ART reduces the amount of virus (or viral load) in your blood and body fluids. ART is recommended for all people with HIV, regardless of how long they’ve had the virus or how healthy they are. ART also reduces your chance of transmitting HIV to others if taken as prescribed.

ART is usually taken as a combination of 3 or more drugs to have the greatest chance of lowering the amount of HIV in your body. Ask your health care provider about the availability of multiple drugs combined into a single pill.

If the HIV medicines you are taking are not working as well as they should, your health care provider may change your prescription. A change is not unusual because the same treatment does not affect everyone in the same way.

Let your health care provider and pharmacist know about any medical conditions you may have and any other medicines you are taking. Additionally, if you or your partner is pregnant or considering getting pregnant, talk to your health care provider to determine the right type of ART that can greatly reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to your baby.

When should I start treatment?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that a person with HIV begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as possible after diagnosis. Starting ART slows the progression of HIV and can keep you healthy for many years.

If you delay treatment, the virus will continue to harm your immune system and put you at higher risk for developing AIDS, which can be life threatening.

Follow your treatment plan exactly as your health care provider has prescribed. Medicines should be taken at specific times of the day, with or without certain kinds of food. If you have questions about when and how to take your medicines, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist.

How do I find HIV care and treatment?

If you have a primary health care provider (someone who manages your regular medical care and annual tests), that person may have the medical knowledge to treat your HIV. If not, he or she can refer you to a health care provider who is a specialist in providing HIV care and treatment. Here are some Web sites that can help you find care:

  • Find HIV care services across the United States, including HIV medical care, housing assistance, and substance abuse and mental health services (from HIV.gov).
  • Find your state HIV/AIDS toll-free hotline to connect with agencies that can help determine what services you are eligible for and help you get them (from the Health Resources and Services Administration).
  • Search for HIV care specialists and members of the American Academy of HIV Medicine for direct access to HIV practitioners across the country (from the American Academy of HIV Medicine).