What Is the HIV Incubation Period?

Sharing needles can spread HIV.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2014
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The HIV incubation period may refer to either the time between exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the first appearance of symptoms, or the period of time between exposure to HIV and progression to full-blown Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It is important to understand the incubation period because a person who has been infected with the disease can pass it on almost immediately, even before symptoms appear. People who are not aware of their infection are at a much higher risk to pass the infection to others, therefore it is vital to get regular testing even if symptoms have not appeared.

The HIV incubation period can be wildly different in each individual. There are a variety of factors that influence the progression from infection to symptom appearance, but genetics appears to play a strong factor. Just as some people seem to have increased protection against flus and colds thanks to strong genes, the incubation period may last longer in those with a naturally strong genetic code. Those with weakened immune systems may have a shorter incubation period. Some research also suggests that children born with HIV have an extremely short incubation period.

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On average, the HIV incubation period in adults is estimated at between one and six months. This estimate is wide, since not all people get tested around the time of symptom appearance, if at all. Symptoms generally manifest as a cold, flu, or general “under the weather” feeling. Understandably, many people do not equate these symptoms with a possible HIV infection and may not seek testing for many more months.

Since detectable antibodies in the blood may not appear until the incubation process is complete, people may also test negative for HIV while the infection is still in incubation. Generally, doctors suggest getting an HIV test immediately after exposure and again after six months to rule out the possibility of a long-incubating infection. If symptoms appear after six months, it may be advisable to get re-tested even if the six month test came up negative.

In terms of the progression of HIV to AIDS, the HIV incubation period can vary extensively based on genes, general health, and treatment. In the early days of study on the disease, when treatments were quite basic, the incubation period could last only months. Even today, in HIV-ravaged areas where treatment costs far exceed available income, the HIV incubation period can last a few months to a few years. Thanks to modern treatments, progression of the disease seems to be slowing down significantly. While research is still in its infancy, estimates for progression to a diagnosis of AIDS has risen to ten years or more when treatment cocktails are used.

It is important to remember that exposure to HIV infection occurs mostly through sexual contact and the sharing of hypodermic needles. Any type of exposure to reproductive fluids can result in infection, leading medical experts to plead and insist that barrier method contraceptives, such as latex condoms, be used in each and every sexual encounter of any kind. Since HIV can be contracted from a carrier who shows no symptoms and has even recently tested negative for the infection, it is vitally important to use protection when engaging in sexual contact of any kind with a new or casual partner, or a partner who engages in multiple relationships or unprotected sex with others.

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