In the United States, about two out of every three new cases of HIV infections in women are due to unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected partner. Sharing infected needles for drug use is another leading cause.
Early symptoms of HIV infection may be mild and easily dismissed. Even without noticeable symptoms, an infected person can still pass the virus to others.
In the early weeks after becoming infected with HIV, it’s not uncommon for women to be asymptomatic. Some may have mild flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, and lack of energy. Often, these symptoms go away within a few weeks.
In some cases, it may take as many as ten years for more severe symptoms to appear. During this time, the virus can still be transmitted from one person to another.
An estimated 90 percent of HIV-positive people 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.
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.
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.
Women with HIV tend to have problems related to reproductive health, including changes to their menstrual cycle or absence of periods. Bacterial and yeast infections may be more common in women who are HIV-positive.
There’s also an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, including:
- human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to genital warts or even cervical cancer
HIV-positive women are also more prone to pelvic inflammatory diseases that may be resistant to treatment.
As HIV progresses, there may be bouts of diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and weight loss. Other symptoms include severe headache, joint pain, and muscle aches. Shortness of breath, chronic cough, and difficulty swallowing are not uncommon.
In the later stages, HIV can lead to short-term memory loss, mental confusion, and 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 difficult to fight off. Women with AIDS are at greater risk of aggressive cancers that are difficult to treat.
HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids. This can happen when drug users share needles or through sexual intercourse. To reduce the risk of HIV infection, 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.
Women should not 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.