NB: Studies have shown that a person living with HIV who is on regular antiretroviral therapy that reduces the virus to undetectable levels in the blood is NOT able to transmit HIV to a partner during sex. This page will be updated soon to reflect the medical consensus that “Undetectable = Untransmittable.”
Early symptoms of HIV infection may be mild and easily dismissed. But even without noticeable symptoms, an infected person can still pass the virus to others. That’s one of many reasons why it’s important to know if you have the disease.
If you’re a woman, you may wonder how HIV symptoms for you might differ from those for men. Many HIV symptoms are the same for men and women, but not all. Here’s a list of 10 common symptoms, including those that are specific to women.
1. Early symptoms
In the early weeks after becoming infected with HIV, it’s not uncommon for people to be without symptoms. Some people may have mild flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, lack of energy. Often, these symptoms 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 the most common symptom of HIV. In a person with HIV, the skin can become extremely sensitive to irritants and sunlight. A rash may appear as a flat red patch with small bumps, and skin may become flaky. Sores, or lesions, may form on the skin of the mouth, genitals, and anus, and may be difficult to treat. People with HIV are also at increased risk of herpes and shingles. With proper medication, skin problems may become less severe.
3. Swollen glands
We all have lymph nodes throughout our bodies, including the neck, back of the head, armpits, and groin. As part of the immune system, our lymph nodes fend off infections by storing immune cells and filtering for harmful substances. As the HIV infection 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 infected 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 to take hold. Some of these include pneumonia, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C. People with HIV are more prone to infections of the skin, eyes, lungs, kidneys, digestive tract, and brain. It may also be more difficult to treat common ailments like the flu. Taking extra precautions, including frequent hand washing and taking HIV medications, can help prevent some of these illnesses and their complications.
5. Fever and night sweats
People infected with HIV may experience long periods of low-grade fever. A temperature between 99.8°F and 100.8°F (37.6°C and 38.2°C) is considered to be a low-grade fever. Your 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 have changes to their menstrual cycle. Your period may be lighter or heavier than normal, or you may not have a period at all. You may also have more severe premenstrual symptoms.
7. Bacterial and yeast infections
Bacterial and yeast infections may be more common in women who are HIV-positive. They may also be harder to treat.
8. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
HIV also increases your risk of getting STIs, including: chlamydia, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to genital warts or even cervical cancer. If you have genital herpes, your outbreaks may be worse and happen more often. Also, your body may not respond as well to your herpes treatment.
9. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
PID is an infection of your 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.
10. Advanced symptoms of HIV and AIDS
As HIV progresses, symptoms can include: diarrhea, 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, coma.
The most advanced stage of HIV is called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). At this stage, the immune system is severely compromised and infections become increasingly hard to fight off. Certain cancers mark the transition from HIV to AIDS. These are called “AIDS-defining cancers” and include Kaposi sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They also include cervical cancer, which is specific to women.
The importance of getting tested
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. It’s easy and you can do it anonymously. You can get tested at your doctor’s office, go to a local testing site, or do an at-home test. Check out the AIDS.gov website for more information.
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 infection include the following:
If you use intravenous drugs, don’t share needles.
Unless you have a single sexual partner who is HIV-negative (and as long as you are their only partner), always use a condom and use it properly.
Don’t douche after sex. It provides no protection against transmission of HIV. Also, douching can alter the natural bacterial balance of yeast in the vagina, increasing the risk of HIV and STDs, or making an existing infection worse.
Talk to your doctor
If you have any of these symptoms and are concerned that you have HIV, a good first step is to talk to your doctor. Most HIV symptoms can also be caused by other factors, and your doctor can help determine if something else is causing your symptoms. They can also guide you in getting tested for HIV, and help devise a treatment plan for your symptoms, whatever their cause turns out to be.