Stages of HIV/AIDS – First to Final Phase Signs and Symptoms

HIV infection can be classified in two ways :

  • Four clinical stages based on the presence or absence of signs, symptoms and opportunistic infections. This is more commonly used and is known as the WHO clinical staging of HIV/AIDS for adults and adolescents.
  • Three clinical categories of HIV infection which is based on the CD4 T-cell count plus the presence or absence of signs, symptoms and opportunistic infections. This is known as the CDC classification system for HIV infection and is not widely used.

Primary Infection or Acute HIV Infection

This first phase of HIV infection is referred to as the primary infection phase or acute infection phase. It is not categorized as a clinical stage according to the classification systems above. It usually evident within 2 to 6 weeks after infection and can last for 8 to 12 weeks. During this phase, the first signs of HIV may be noticed although up to 30% of new infections may be asymptomatic (no symptoms).

Some of the clinical features of this stage includes :

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Muscle and/or joint pain
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headache
  • Mouth ulcers/sores

Asymptomatic HIV Infection

WHO Stage One, CDC Category A

As the name suggests, there is usually no signs or symptoms present in this phase – the first signs of HIV infection (stage one) is no longer evident. However, there may be a persistent generalized lymphadenopathy which :

  • lasts for 3 months or more at a time.
  • affects two or more sites of the body (other than the inguinal/groin nodes).
  • the swollen nodes are usually >1cm in diameter.

This phase can last for 7 to 10 years but it may be longer or shorter depending on a number of factors. The CD4 T-cell count is usually above 500 cells/mm3, however, some patients with a CD4 T-cell count below 500 cells/mm3 but usually above 350 cells/mm3 may also be within this phase.

Mildly Symptomatic Disease or Early Symptomatic HIV Infection

WHO Stage Two and Three, CDC Category B

In this phase of HIV infection, persistent or recurrent symptoms become evident. It is the transition phase between being asymptomatic and the development of AIDS.  Persistent signs and symptoms or recurrent conditions include :

  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Night sweats
  • Low grade fever
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Unintentional weight loss – moderate in stage two (<10% of body weight) or severe (>10%) in stage three
  • Oral candidiasis (thrush)
  • Vaginal candidiasis
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Oral hairy leukoplakia
  • Herpes zoster (shingles)
  • Thrombocytopenia
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Cervical dysplasia
  • Fungal skin infections
  • Bacterial infections
  • Molluscum contagiosum
  • Other itchy skin rashes

These stages usually correlate with a CD4 T-cell count less than 500 cells/mm3, however, the CD4 count could be higher in some patients.

AIDS or AIDS-Related Complex (ARC)

WHO Stage Four, CDC Category C

The fourth or final stage of HIV infection is what is termed as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and this is based on the presence of certain diseases (known as AIDS-defining illnesses) and/or a CD4 T-cell count lower than 200 cells/mm3.

AIDS Defining Illnesses

The conditions listed below do not only occur in AIDS. While these conditions are rare, any immunocompromised patient may be prone to contracting these infections or developing these signs. It should only be considered as an AIDS defining illness once HIV infection has been confirmed. A declining CD4 count and rising viral load will further serve to confirm that these are AIDS defining illnesses.

  • Candidiasis (thrush) of the esophagus
  • Cerebral lymphoma, primary
  • Coccidiodomycosis, extrapulmonary
  • Cryptococcal meningitis
  • Cryptosporidiosis
  • CNS toxoplasmosis
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection (retinitis, colitis and/or other organs)
  • Dementia, HIV associated
  • Mycobacterium avium intracellulare, disseminated
  • Histoplasmosis, extrapulmonary
  • Invasive cervical cancer
  • Isosporiasis
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma
  • Leukoencephalopathy, progressive multifocal
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Pneumocystis pneumonia
  • Salmonella bacteremia, recurrent non-typhoidal
  • Tuberculosis, pulmonary (lung) or extrapulmonary
  • Wasting (cachexia), HIV associated

Related Articles

  1. First Signs of HIV – Early Infection Symptoms, Risks, Other Cause
  2. First HIV Test and Meaning of HIV Early Test Results


  1. HIV Classification : CDC and WHO Staging Systems

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  • 10USNUT

    I have numbness in my legs anytime that I put pressure on the undersides of my upper legs. Such as setting in a chair or driving. I have to set such that I do not have any pressure. Is this a nerve or a circulation problem? I have a minor bulged disk in L4-L5. A chiropractor is helping with this, but my numbness continues. Feels fine when working or playing tennis.

    • Dr. Chris

      Hi 10USNUT

      Please post your question under the correct article. This article deals with HIV/AIDS. Refer to the Leg Numbness article.

  • Pingback: HIV Diarrhea Symptoms - Causes of Watery, Bloody Stool in AIDS |


    I have a serious sweat at nigt over the back of my body. Please help!

    • Dr. Chris

      Hi Jackson

      Night sweats can be due to many causes other than HIV infection. You should speak to your doctor who will conduct the necessary tests to try to isolate a cause.

  • Vegina Stewart

    I keep on getting multiple yeast infections

    • Hi. We assume that your statement about multiple yeast infections is related to HIV since you have commented on an HIV article. There is no way of saying that these multiple yeast infections is a result of HIV infection if you are unsure of your status. Yeast infections can be difficult to treat and tend to recur even without HIV. It is important to see a doctor and have an HIV test if you do not know your status as yet. Even if HIV is a contributing factor, your yeast infections need to be treated with the appropriate medication. Your doctor will prescribe the best drugs to eradicate the infection, while ensuring that your immune system is at a level that can keep infections like this at bay.