Unlike a lot of other sexually transmitted diseases, HIV does not produce symptoms on the genital areas. In fact, part of the reason the disease is so widespread is that it takes a long time to produce any symptoms at all. HIV destroys the body's ability to fight other illnesses, and it can take as many as eight or nine years before an infected person develops serious symptoms. For this reason, regular testing is key to detecting the disease and preventing new infections.
Because other sexually transmitted diseases--such as gonorrhea, genital warts and herpes--cause pain, sores or bumps on the genitals, people sometimes assume that HIV produces similar symptoms. Although HIV spreads through unprotected sex, it does not show itself in the same way as these other diseases. Instead, it attacks the body's immune cells, destroying them over time and leaving infected people in danger of becoming very sick from illnesses that healthy people can fight without a problem.
Early HIV Symptoms
Many newly infected people do not show symptoms, but sometimes a flu-like illness will develop about two to four weeks after the infection. According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of this illness include fever, headache, sore throat, swollen lymph glands and a rash. Because these symptoms are so common, many people who develop this illness do not suspect that they have a serious health problem.
Middle Stage HIV Symptoms
Many people who have HIV feel fine for the first several years after infection, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, the disease often starts producing symptoms about eight to nine years after infection. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who have the HIV infection for that length of time often have chronic swollen lymph nodes, diarrhea, weight loss, fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Late Stage HIV Symptoms
As the disease progresses--and as the body struggles to defend itself against illnesses it used to defeat easily--HIV continues destroying immune cells. The symptoms keep getting worse. According to the Mayo Clinic, this takes place about 10 years after infection. With the body's immune system so worn down, people with advanced HIV suffer from chronic fatigue, night sweats, chills, fever, coughing, shortness of breath, white spots in the mouth, headaches, blurred vision and weight loss.
Most people who know they have HIV find out through testing, not through symptoms. Because the disease takes so long to produce symptoms--and because infected people can spread the virus to others even if they're not showing symptoms--health officials recommend regular testing for anyone at risk of contracting HIV.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing for people who have injected drugs or had unprotected sex with multiple partners or people they don't know. The CDC also recommends testing for those who have exchanged sex for money, drugs or other reasons. People with hepatitis, tuberculosis or a sexually transmitted disease should also be tested, according to the CDC, and so should anyone who has had sex with someone who fits any of the above descriptions.