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.
Here’s a list of nine common symptoms, including those that are specific to women.
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:
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.
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.
With proper medication, however, skin problems may become less severe.
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:
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.
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.
HIV-positive women may also have more severe premenstrual symptoms.
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.
PID in HIV-positive women may be harder to treat. Also, symptoms may last longer than usual or return more often.
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).
- 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
- using a condom, properly, if not in a monogamous relationship with an HIV-negative partner
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.
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Knowing the risk factors is an important part of HIV prevention. Discover more ways to prevent HIV and other STIs here.
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.
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.
If HIV test results were negative but symptoms are still present, consider following up with a healthcare provider. Symptoms such as a rash may be a sign of a serious medical condition, even in people without HIV.
If HIV test results were positive, a healthcare provider can assist in coming up with a treatment plan. The condition can be managed with proper treatment, and recent advancements have significantly improved the life expectancy of people with HIV.
Also consider seeking support from these organizations dedicated to helping girls and women with HIV:
- The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS
- Positive Women’s Network – USA
- The Well Project
- WORLD (Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Diseases)