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Medical History and Physical Exam for HIV Infection

Exam Overview

When you are first diagnosed with HIV, your doctor will check your current health status. He or she will ask questions about your current symptoms and past health to find out whether you have had any HIV-related illnesses, whether you have medicine allergies, whether your immunizations are up-to-date, and whether you have ever been hospitalized for illness or surgery.

Many of the tests a doctor does during the initial exam will be repeated during regular checkups to monitor changes in your health.

Medical history

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Do you have an increased risk for developing HIV? You have an increased risk of developing HIV if you:
    • Are a man who has sex with men.
    • Have more than one sex partner, especially if one of you injects drugs.
    • Inject drugs or steroids, especially if you share needles, syringes, cookers, or other equipment used to inject drugs.
    • Have high-risk partner(s) (a man or woman who has multiple sex partners or injects drugs, or a man who has sex with men).
    • Have recently had a sexually transmitted infection.
  • Have you ever had symptoms that might indicate illness, such as fever, weight loss, shortness of breath, or diarrhea?
  • Have you ever had tuberculosis, fungal or yeast infections, liver infection (hepatitis), cold sores (oral herpes), or any other sexually transmitted diseases? All of these diseases can present special problems for people who are infected with HIV.
  • Are you a caregiver, such as a partner or parent, of a person who is HIV-positive and has hemophilia?

Physical exam

Your doctor will do a complete physical exam to find out your present state of health. This may include the following exams:

  • Temperature. Fevers are common in people who have HIV, even when no other symptoms are present. Fever can sometimes be a sign of a certain kind of infection or cancer that is more common in people who have weakened immune systems.
  • Weight. Your doctor will weigh you at every visit. A loss of 10% or more of your body weight may be a result of wasting syndrome, which is one of the signs of AIDS, the last and most severe stage of HIV infection. You may need help getting adequate nutrition if you have lost weight.
  • Eyes. Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis is a common complication of AIDS. It occurs more frequently in people who have a CD4+ cell count of less than 100 cells per microliter (mcL). Symptoms include seeing floaters, blurred vision, or loss of vision. If you have symptoms of CMV retinitis, you should see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible. Some doctors recommend ophthalmologist visits every 3 to 6 months if your CD4+ cell count is less than 100 cells per microliter (mcL).
  • Mouth. Oral yeast infections (thrush) and other mouth sores are very common in people who are HIV-infected. You should have a dental exam at least twice a year. If you develop symptoms of gum disease (periodontal disease), you may need to see your dentist more often.
  • Lymph nodes. Lymph node enlargement (lymphadenopathy) is not always caused by HIV alone. A biopsy may be considered if your lymph nodes are getting larger or if some are different sizes (asymmetrical).
  • Abdomen. The abdominal exam may show an enlarged liver (hepatomegaly) or enlarged spleen (splenomegaly). These conditions can be caused by new infections or may indicate cancer. Your doctor will do an abdominal exam if you develop symptoms such as pain in the upper right or upper left part of your abdomen.
  • Skin. Skin problems are common for people with HIV infection. A regular exam may reveal treatable conditions ranging in severity from seborrheic dermatitis to Kaposi's sarcoma.
  • Gynecologic. Women who are HIV-infected have more cervical cell abnormalities than women who do not have HIV. These cell changes can be detected with a Pap test. You should have two Pap tests during the first year after you have been diagnosed with HIV. If the first two Pap tests are normal, you should have a Pap test once a year. You may need to have a Pap test more frequently if you ever have an abnormal test result.

Why It Is Done

The medical history and physical exam are done right after a person has been diagnosed with HIV infection (a positive ELISA test and a positive Western blot assay or other test).

A thorough physical exam will provide information about your present state of health. Your doctor will talk to you about the benefits and risks of starting treatment for HIV.

During later visits, your doctor will do tests, such as viral load and CD4+ cell count, to see whether your health status is changing.

These exams will be done during regular follow-up exams or if specific symptoms develop.

Results

The medical history and physical exam may provide the following results.

Normal

No abnormalities are found. After the initial workup, talk to your doctor to decide how often to schedule follow-up exams.

  • The frequency of follow-up exams depends on whether you have symptoms of illness and your initial viral load and CD4+ cell count measurements.
  • Follow-up exams may be done as often as every 3 to 6 months, possibly more often, especially right after you start medicine treatment.

If you do not have symptoms but you have a high CD4+ cell count and a low viral load, your doctor will probably recommend that you have follow-up exams at least every 6 months or sooner if you develop symptoms of illness.

Abnormal

Signs of illness are found. Follow-up and treatment will depend on the specific problem.

What To Think About

Your family medicine physician or internist may not be able to diagnose and treat all the problems that can be caused by HIV infection. Your doctor may refer you to another doctor who specializes in conditions that affect different body systems. Before you make an appointment with a specialist, find out whether he or she has experience treating people who have HIV-related illnesses.

Complications of HIV may require treatment by the following doctors:

Complete the medical test information form (PDF)medical test information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you prepare for this test.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Shalit, MD, PhD - Internal Medicine
Current as of June 4, 2014

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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