Early symptoms of HIV may be mild and easily dismissed. But even without noticeable symptoms, an HIV-positive person can still pass the virus on to others. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s important for people to know their HIV status. Women may wonder how HIV symptoms for them differ from those seen in men. Many HIV symptoms are the same for men and women, but not all. Here’s a list of nine common symptoms, including those that are specific to women.
1. Early, flu-like symptoms
In the early weeks after contracting HIV, it’s not uncommon for people to be without symptoms. Some people may have mild flu-like symptoms, including:
- lack of energy
- swollen lymph glands
These symptoms often go away within a few weeks. In some cases, it may take as many as 10 years for more severe symptoms to appear.
2. Skin rashes and skin sores
Most people with HIV develop skin problems. Rash is a common symptom of HIV, and many different types of skin rashes are associated with the condition. They may be a symptom of HIV itself or the result of a concurrent infection or condition. If a rash appears, it’s a good idea to have a healthcare provider review one’s medical history. They can use a complete medical history to determine which diagnostic tests are needed. Sores, or lesions, may also form on the skin of the mouth, genitals, and anus of people with HIV. With proper medication, however, skin problems may become less severe.
3. Swollen glands
Lymph nodes are located throughout the human body, including the neck, back of the head, armpits, and groin. As part of the immune system, lymph nodes fend off infections by storing immune cells and filtering pathogens. As HIV begins to spread, the immune system kicks into high gear. The result is enlarged lymph nodes, commonly known as swollen glands. It’s often one of the first signs of HIV. In people living with HIV, swollen glands may last for several months.
HIV makes it harder for the immune system to fight off germs, so it’s easier for opportunistic infections (OIs) to take hold. Some of these include pneumonia, tuberculosis, and oral or vaginal candidiasis. Yeast infections (a type of candidiasis) and bacterial infections may be more common in HIV-positive women, as well as harder to treat. In general, people with HIV are also more prone to infections of the following areas:
- digestive tract
HIV can make it more difficult to treat common ailments such as the flu, too. However, taking antiretroviral medications and achieving viral suppression will dramatically reduce a person’s risk of getting OIs. Other precautions, including frequent hand-washing, can also help prevent some of these illnesses and their complications.
5. Fever and night sweats
People with HIV may experience long periods of low-grade fever. A temperature between 99.8°F (37.7°C) and 100.8°F (38.2°C) is considered a low-grade fever. The body develops a fever when something is wrong, but the cause isn’t always obvious. Because it’s a low-grade fever, those who are unaware of their HIV-positive status may ignore the symptom. Sometimes, night sweats that can interfere with sleep may accompany fever.
6. Menstrual changes
Women with HIV can experience changes to their menstrual cycle. Their periods may be lighter or heavier than normal, or they may not have a period at all. HIV-positive women may also have more severe premenstrual symptoms.
7. Increased outbreaks of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
For people who already have another sexually transmitted infection (STI), HIV can lead to worsening symptoms. Human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes genital warts, is more active in people who have HIV. HIV can also cause more frequent — and more intense — outbreaks in people with genital herpes. Their bodies may not respond as well to their herpes treatment, either.
8. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. PID in HIV-positive women may be harder to treat. Also, symptoms may last longer than usual or return more often.ADVERTISEMENT
9. Advanced symptoms of HIV and AIDS
As HIV progresses, symptoms can include:
- nausea and vomiting
- weight loss
- severe headache
- joint pain
- muscle aches
- shortness of breath
- chronic cough
- trouble swallowing
In the later stages, HIV can lead to:
- short-term memory loss
- mental confusion
The most advanced stage of HIV is acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). At this stage, the immune system is severely compromised, and infections become increasingly hard to fight off. A person receives a diagnosis of AIDS when their CD4 cell count falls under 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (mm3). At this point, the risk of certain cancers increases. These so-called “AIDS-defining cancers” include Kaposi sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cervical cancer (which is specific to women).
Reducing the risk of HIV
HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids. This can happen through sharing needles during drug use or through sexual intercourse. Key ways to reduce the risk of HIV include the following:
- not sharing needles when using injected drugs
- taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP); the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends this preventive medication for people with known risk factors for HIV
- not douching after sex; it can alter the natural balance of bacteria and yeast in the vagina, making an existing infection worse or increasing the risk of contracting HIV and STDs
Women without HIV who have HIV-positive partners aren’t at risk of contracting the virus if their partner uses HIV medications daily and achieves viral suppression, though ongoing use of a condom is recommended. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, HIV-positive people pose “effectively no risk” of transmitting HIV when their viral loadis consistently measured at fewer than 200 copies of HIV per milliliter (mL) of blood. Knowing the risk factors is an important part of HIV prevention. Discover more ways to prevent HIV and other STIs here.
The importance of getting tested
If the above symptoms are present, and there’s concern about the possibility of HIV, a good first step is to get tested. It’s the only way for a person to know for sure if they have HIV. The CDC actually recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once for HIV, regardless of their risk. If a person has known risk factors, it’s a good idea for them to be tested annually. Testing is easy and can be performed confidentially in a medical provider’s office or anonymously at home or at a testing site. Local public health departments, as well as resources such as HIV.gov, offer information on finding testing sites.