Signs Of Hiv In Women

But coming into contact with infected blood — such as by sharing needles — can also transmit HIV from one person to another.

HIV and People Assigned Female At Birth: Common Symptoms

profile portrait of two femme=presenting people against a red background

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.

But not all HIV symptoms are the same for everyone. So how do symptoms differ for people assigned female at birth (AFAB)?

Here are the common symptoms that can affect people who have a vulva and vagina.

Stage 1: Acute infection

This early stage is usually seen after 2 to 4 weeks of contracting HIV and is the point when a person is most contagious.

The body responds to the virus, typically resulting in flu-like symptoms.

In some cases, symptoms are so mild that you may not even notice them. But others may need to be seen by a doctor or other healthcare professional.

Here are some of the symptoms that can be common during the acute stage.

Swollen glands

Swollen lymph nodes, or glands, are often one of the first signs of HIV and can last for several months.

Lymph nodes are located throughout the body, including the:

  • neck
  • back of the head
  • armpits
  • groin

Forming part of the immune system, they fend off infections by storing immune cells and filtering pathogens.

As HIV begins to spread in the body, the immune system kicks into gear. The result is enlarged lymph nodes.

Sore throat

A sore throat is quite a common symptom during the earliest stage of a HIV infection.

It may last a few days, weeks, or even months in rarer cases.

Mouth ulcers

Mouth sores can also occur during the initial stage and may even be the first sign of an infection. But it’s also possible for them to occur when HIV has progressed to a later stage.

They may appear as cream-colored plaques on the tongue, palate, or lips that often wipe away to leave a red surface underneath.

Other people may develop red ulcers inside the cheeks and lips that can be painful.

Skin rashes

Rash is a common symptom and many different types can show up on the skin. They may be a symptom of HIV itself or the result of a concurrent infection or condition.

Night sweats

Some people may experience night sweats within the first month of contracting HIV. They occur when the body attempts to fight the infection during sleep.

It’s common for other symptoms, like fever, to accompany night sweats. Though, fever may also present on its own. FYI, a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) is considered a fever.

Muscle ache

One of the most troublesome symptoms for many with HIV, muscles can begin to ache within the first few weeks of an infection. This is often the result of a flu-like episode. (More on this below.)

Other flu-like symptoms

Some people may have other symptoms that resemble the flu, including:

These often go away within a few weeks.

Stage 2: Chronic infection

Also known as the asymptomatic stage, chronic HIV infection is the point where the virus remains at low levels inside the body.

Some people have no symptoms at all during this period — despite the virus still replicating — and this can last for several years.

Others may have more severe symptoms than they experienced during the acute stage. These can range from coughing and fatigue to weight loss and diarrhea. A high fever is also possible.

Stage 3: Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

This is the most severe HIV stage, where the body’s immune system has been severely weakened.

It becomes more difficult to ward off certain infections, known as opportunistic infections, or diseases.

Infections and diseases

HIV makes it easier for opportunistic infections to take hold.

Some of these include:

  • pneumonia
  • tuberculosis
  • oral or vaginal candidiasis

Yeast infections (a type of candidiasis) and bacterial infections may be more common in AFAB folks, and they may be harder to treat.

In general, people with uncontrolled HIV are also more prone to infections of the following areas:

If HIV is uncontrolled, the risk of certain cancers increases, too, including:

  • Kaposi sarcoma
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • cervical cancer

Menstrual changes

People with HIV may eventually experience changes to their menstrual cycle. Their periods may be lighter or heavier than usual, or they may not have a period at all.

More severe premenstrual symptoms have also been noted.

Increased outbreaks of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

For people who already have another STI, HIV can lead to worsening symptoms.

Human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause genital warts, is more active in those with HIV.

The infection can also cause more frequent and intense outbreaks of genital herpes that can be more difficult to treat.

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)

PID is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries that can lead to:

  • pain during penetrative sex and when urinating
  • irregular bleeding
  • increased vaginal discharge
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In HIV-positive people, it can be harder to treat. Symptoms may also last longer than usual or return more often.

Other symptoms

If HIV progresses to AIDS, other symptoms include:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea and vomiting
  • weight loss
  • severe headache
  • joint pain
  • muscle aches
  • shortness of breath
  • chronic cough
  • trouble swallowing
  • severe night sweats and chills

In the later stages, people may experience:

  • short-term memory loss
  • mental confusion
  • coma

The human immunodeficiency virus causes HIV infections, attacking the immune system and weakening the body’s defense against infections and diseases.

It originated from chimpanzees in Central Africa and is thought to have spread to humans who hunted them and came into contact with their infected blood.

As it’s transmitted via contact with bodily fluids, most people are infected through unprotected vaginal or anal sex with someone who’s HIV-positive. (The risk of contracting HIV through oral sex tends to be much lower.)

But coming into contact with infected blood — such as by sharing needles — can also transmit HIV from one person to another.

It’s possible for a birthing parent to transmit HIV to their baby, too. This can occur during pregnancy, childbirth, or nursing.

Key ways to reduce the risk of HIV include the following:

  • not sharing needles when using injected drugs
  • using a condom properly when having sex alongside water- or silicone-based lubricant to help prevent it slipping or breaking
  • taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re at a higher risk of contracting HIV
  • not douching — it can alter the natural balance of bacteria and yeast in the vagina, make an existing infection worse, or increase the risk of contracting HIV and other STIs
  • getting tested and treated for HIV and other STIs — having an STI can mean a greater risk of contracting HIV

AFAB people 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. However, ongoing use of barrier methods, like condoms, is recommended.

If the above symptoms are present, and there’s concern about the possibility of HIV, a good first step is to get tested.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once for HIV, regardless of their risk. If you have known risk factors, it’s a good idea to be tested annually.

Testing can be performed confidentially in a medical professional’s office or anonymously at home or at a testing site.

Local public health departments, as well as resources like HIV.gov, offer information on finding testing sites.

If HIV test results are negative but symptoms are still present, consider following up with a healthcare professional. The likes of a rash may be a sign of a serious medical condition, even in people without HIV.

If the HIV test comes back positive, a healthcare professional can assist in creating a treatment plan.

With treatment via antiretroviral medications, the condition can be managed. Recent advancements have significantly improved the life expectancy of people with HIV.

Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.

Last medically reviewed on January 28, 2022

11 HIV Symptoms Every Woman Should Keep On Her Radar

Woman donating blood

What if I told you that early HIV symptoms actually feel more like a common cold than anything else?

“Most people who get infected don’t even know. It’s only in hindsight they recognize the symptoms,” says Michael Horberg, M.D., director of HIV/AIDS for Kaiser Permanente.

During the first few weeks after infection (a stage known as acute HIV infection or acute retroviral syndrome), some people notice things like fever, aches, and sore throat. But after acute infection, patients move into clinical latency stage, or chronic HIV, which is largely symptom-free.

A refresher: HIV (a.k.a. human immunodeficiency virus) is an incurable virus that attacks your body’s immune system. It can be passed on through bodily fluids like semen, blood, and breast milk; though, not through saliva. When it comes HIV prevention, the CDC recommends using condoms or possibly exploring new medications like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which aim to prevent the transmission of HIV.

While there is no cure for the disease, most HIV patients can still love long, healthy lives thanks to antiretroviral therapy (ART) treatments.

An estimated 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the U.S.*

However, left untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which can make you even more susceptible to severe illnesses and eventually lead to death.

The only way to really know whether you have HIV is to get tested (which you should be doing at least once a year if you’re sexually active and have unprotected sex). There are two options for anonymous and confidential home testing, but you need to make sure your tests are FDA-approved and be aware that results are not always accurate (and may require a follow-up test if positive).

Since early detection of HIV can prolong your lifespan and reduce your transmission rates, it’s important to be aware of the potential symptoms (as well as the fact that, in most cases, there are no symptoms). Here’s what you need to know about HIV symptoms in women:

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fever and chills

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1. You have a fever and chills.

A low-grade fever —99.5 to 101 F—accompanied by chills is one of the more common HIV symptoms you might notice. “Your body is trying to fight a foreign body that isn’t supposed to be there, in this case ineffectively,” says Horberg.

While raising your body temperature does actually kill some weaker viruses, like the flu, it’s not enough to wipe out HIV. The fever usually lasts for a week or two, but it can pop up for just a day. “If there’s any chance you could have been infected, get tested,” Horberg adds.

2. You’re always waking up with night sweats.

Getting damp on a muggy night without air conditioning is definitely not the same as night sweats, which result in puddles of sweat that’ll make you want to change your sheets. “The body is trying to release off toxins,” says Horberg.

Although HIV can cause night sweats, plenty of other potential culprits do as well, including menopause, mononucleosis, and cancers like lymphoma and leukemia, says Horberg. So if you’re soaking your sheets over the course of a few nights, definitely check in with your doctor.

3. You’re breaking out in a rash.

Some people who experience HIV symptoms notice a light red rash all over their bodies, including their arms, torso, and legs—although it can appear in just one or two spots.

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“It’s a general redness, not discrete red bumps. If you’ve ever had a drug reaction rash, it’s similar to that,” says Horberg.

It usually lasts at least a week, and most patients say it’s not itchy; it’s a reaction to fever along with your body’s natural inflammation response as it fights off infection.

4. Your throat is so sore.

An inflammatory response to a serious viral infection can also cause your throat to become inflamed, making it hard to swallow. But unlike strep, your doctor won’t spot patches of white, just redness and inflammation like you’d get with a cold.

“Lots of viruses affect your throat,” says Horberg; but if you’re concerned about HIV, it’s best to see a doctor about this one.

sleepy and achy

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5. You feel sleepy and achy all over.

You might feel generally uncomfortable (and really fatigued) for at least a week after you’re first infected with HIV, says Horberg.

It’s an unrelenting exhaustion—even going to work or just sticking to your daily routine will be a chore. “Everything hurts. It’s hard to move, and you just can’t make yourself comfortable,” says Horberg. “Your body is fighting the HIV virus, and it’s tired.”

6. Your neck—and armpits, and groin—are swollen.

Your lymph nodes—located in your neck, armpits, and groin—manufacture infection-fighting cells, and they’re working overtime at the same time they’re under direct attack from HIV. That’s why over a third of people who’ve been exposed to the virus notice these glands appear bigger than normal, explains Horberg.

If you feel several swollen lymph nodes in different locations, it’s definitely a symptom to check with your doctor stat.

7. You have a yeast infection.

Yeast are microscopic fungi that naturally live in your mouth and vagina. When you’re first infected with HIV, however, they can grow out of control, causing a yeast infection.

Related Story

“Your body’s own natural ability to fight other infections is being attacked,” says Horberg.

That said, conditions like diabetes also commonly cause yeast infections—and some women without any underlying diseases simply get yeast infections more often than others. So check in with your doc for treatment; if you think there’s a chance you could have recently been infected with HIV, ask if you should get tested.

8. You have a canker sore.

Canker sores (a.k.a. mouth ulcers) are tender, round, whitish pits in the lining of your mouth—and they can be caused by inflammation as your body tries to fight off HIV, says Horberg.

They often cause a stinging sensation, and are more sensitive to acidic foods like lemons. It should be noted, however, that canker sores happen for a variety of different reasons too, like stress, food allergies, or hormonal changes.

bathroom scale

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9. You start losing weight unexpectedly.

In its later stages, untreated HIV causes what’s known as wasting, or loss of fat and muscle mass, because the virus causes you to lose your appetite and prevents your body from absorbing nutrients, says Horberg.

10. You actually get diagnosed with meningitis.

As HIV disseminates through your central nervous system, it can cause viral meningitis, a swelling of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord, says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopskins Bloomberg School of Public Health. According to the CDC, common symptoms of viral meningitis include fever, irritability, lethargy, and vomiting.

Cryptococcal meningitis is also commonly associated with HIV infections, though usually in later stages or in patients with AIDS. Most people are exposed to the cryptococcus fungus at some point, but a weakened immune system can’t fight off exposure the way a healthy one can.

11. Your stomach feels off.

A trio of gastrointestinal symptoms—diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting—may also be a marker for initial HIV infection, says Amruta Padhye, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the University of Missouri Health Care. “With rising viremia [levels of virus in the blood], the immune system is in a state of hyperactivation,” she explains.

Bottom line? Your GI distress might not be just a stomach bug, so get it checked out if you’re at risk for HIV.

*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Colleen de Bellefonds is an American freelance journalist living in Paris, France, with her husband and dog, Mochi. She loves running, yoga, and wine, and is very particular about her baguettes.

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