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HIV Tongue and Other Telling Signs of HIV/AIDS: The Symptoms to Know

Medically reviewed by Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Updated Sep 27, 2023

HIV Tongue and Other Telling Signs of HIV/AIDS: The Symptoms to Know

HIV or human immunodeficiency virus is one of the most well-known and devastating viruses out there. In 1981, a cluster of cases of rare and severe infections and cancers were reported, primarily in young adult homosexual men. It wasn’t until the following year that the term AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was officially used to classify these mysterious symptoms. People with HIV can present with telling signs such as HIV tongue, night sweats, and rapid weight loss. Learn more about these signs to watch out for and their causes.

HIV Tongue and Other Mouth Issues

Did you know that HIV tongue can appear when the immune system is severely weakened? Normally, a healthy tongue is pink, moist, and non-tender. However, some HIV patients can develop white folds or patches on their tongue. Unlike typical white build-up on the tongue from food and normal bacteria, the white patches cannot be brushed or scraped away. The white patches can cause pain, discomfort, and affect your sense of taste.

The medical term for HIV tongue is oral hairy leukoplakia. Despite the name, there is no actual hair growing on the tongue. Ironically, the virus that causes AIDS does not cause HIV tongue, but rather another virus called the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). EBV is a very common infection, however, most people do not experience symptoms. This virus is a type of herpes virus and can cause a disease known as mononucleosis or “kissing disease.” Please note that kissing disease can also be present in people without HIV. 

Another common oral concern among people with HIV is oral thrush, an infection caused by yeast or fungi. Reports said around 80 to 90% of HIV patients develop oral thrush.

Other Telltale Signs of HIV/AIDS

Rashes and skin discoloration

HIV tongue

As mentioned before, people who have AIDS have fragile immune systems. Because of this, normally harmless and beneficial normal flora can cause infections. Additionally, people with AIDS have a higher risk of getting serious infections.

Rashes and skin discoloration are common occurrence. The body can become more sensitive to substances, even if you previously didn’t have allergies. Treatment for AIDS involves several medications, some of which can cause skin irritation and sensitivity. The rash may be reddish or purple and flat or with small bumps. Rashes can show up anywhere, including the palms.

Other viral infections such as herpes and shingles (reactivated chickenpox) can affect AIDS patients. Herpes often appears as sores in and around the mouth. These sores are red and white, painful, and infectious. Sometimes these are referred to as “cold sores.

Shingles can happen to anyone who previously had chickenpox. Chickenpox appears as red, itchy blisters on the skin. These lesions are contagious to people who are not immunized to the virus. While most people recover from chickenpox, however, the virus never completely goes away. It becomes inactivated or “latent” until the immune system is weakened. The reactivated virus causes rashes known as shingles, which is more painful and lasts for several weeks as compared to chickenpox rashes.

Rapid weight loss

While some people would be excited to drop several kilograms in a short period of time, this is a bad sign for people with infections. Besides HIV tongue, rapid weight loss is also tell-tale sign of serious diseases such as AIDS.

Factors that contribute to weight loss include stress, poor nutrition, and dehydration. People who are sick tend to be bedridden or need to be quarantined. Because of this, they typically cannot exercise to maintain their muscle mass. Additionally, many medications can cause nausea and loss of appetite. When HIV infection progresses into AIDS, the body burns more calories than normal. This leads to wasting and weight loss, which can further weaken the immune system and body.

Swollen lymph nodes

Generally, when the body encounters an infection, our lymph nodes feel warm and get slightly larger. Commonly felt lymph nodes are the ones on the neck below the jawline. Other lymph nodes are located near the armpit and groin. These nodes can be felt when we are sick because this is where white blood cells are stored and lymph fluid is filtered. Usually, the nodes closest to the site of infection become swollen. For example, a throat infection will present with swollen nodes around the neck rather than in the armpit or groin area.

Normally, the swelling is minimal and temporary. However, with HIV infection, swollen lymph nodes feel firm and last for weeks to months. These swollen nodes may feel painful or uncomfortable when touched. Many other viral infections are self-limiting, therefore lymph node swelling goes away after several days. However, with HIV, there is no cure and the lymph nodes continue to stay swollen.

Night sweats

Lastly, night sweats along with other symptoms including weight loss and HIV tongue can be an indicator of HIV infection. Mental conditions (e.g. anxiety, nightmares), medications, and hormonal imbalances can also trigger night sweats. Night sweats are more common in the early stages of HIV infection, when the body first starts to fight off the infection. Sweating may be accompanied by fever.

Key Takeaways

In summary, HIV tongue, weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes together can all point toward an HIV infection. For people who have never been tested, experiencing any of these signs and symptoms along with exposure to injectable drugs or unprotected sex, now would be the best time to get checked. For those who are already HIV-positive, experiencing worsening of these signs and symptoms may indicate that the disease is progressing. In either case, it is best to talk to a doctor for evaluation and treatment.

Learn more about HIV/ AIDS here


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Jobelle Ann Dela Cruz Bigalbal, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Stephanie Nera, RPh, PharmD · Updated Sep 27, 2023

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