HIV Symptoms Women Should Be Aware Of

Symptoms that could serve as warning signals of HIV infection may go ignored because many women do not perceive themselves to be at risk.

Symptoms include recurrent yeast infections (vaginal candidiasis), pelvic inflammatory disease, abnormal changes or dysplasia (growth and presence of precancerous cells) in cervical tissue, genital ulcers, and genital warts. Severe mucosal herpes infections may accompany HIV infection in women. It is also possible for a person infected with HIV to show no signs of infection.

For women, the most common symptoms of exposure to the HIV virus are:

  • frequent or severe vaginal infections
  • abnormal PAP smears
  • or pelvic infections that are difficult to treat.

Within a few weeks of having been infected, many people have flu-like symptoms. However, in some cases, symptoms do not show for many years. As the infection progresses, some symptoms can include:

  • swollen lymph glands in the neck, underarm, or groin area
  • recurrent fever-including "night sweats"
  • rapid weight loss for no apparent reason
  • constant tiredness
  • diarrhea and decreased appetite
  • white spots or unusual blemishes in the mouth
Tired woman in bed
Blake Sinclair / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Reducing the Odds of Contracting HIV

Since women constitute the most rapidly growing segment of people living with HIV in the United States, AIDS prevention is particularly important for women's health. HIV is transmitted through bodily secretions, like blood and semen.

Using injection drugs, having unprotected sex with someone who has used injection drugs, having unprotected sex with a man who has had sex with another man, and having multiple sex partners all increase the chances of acquiring HIV.

According to the FDA, the best way to protect yourself against HIV is abstinence from sexual intercourse and illegal drug use.

If you have intercourse, be sure it is with one uninfected partner or that you properly use barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams.

Treatment

Currently, there is no known cure for HIV/AIDS. The best treatment right now is a "cocktail" of a combination of prescription drugs.

These medications include those for antiviral treatment and other drugs, like oral antifungals to combat yeast infections, which fight diseases that take advantage of the weakened immune response of people living with HIV.

It is also important for women with HIV and their physicians to watch for pelvic inflammatory disease or other STDs through regular screening.

Similarly, cervical cancer may be more common and progress more quickly in infected women. For women living with HIV between the ages of 21 and 29, Pap tests are recommended at time of diagnosis. If the test is normal, Pap tests can be repeated once a year thereafter.

Research Advances

Very few women with HIV were included in early studies of the epidemic, but by 1994, women accounted for 18 percent of adult participants in the AIDS Clinical Trials Group of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Studies are now focusing on clinical signs of HIV infection in women and on the relationships between pregnancy and HIV.

Researchers are investigating "female-controlled" methods of protection by developing creams or gels that women can apply before intercourse to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

There is no conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of contraceptive films as an HIV-transmission prevention tool.

Transmission

Is HIV Transmitted to Fetuses?

Most babies born to women living with HIV escape the virus, but one in four do become infected before or during birth or through breastfeeding, although no one is certain when viral transmission occurs.

Transmission may also be linked to the mother's health during pregnancy or birth. There are more viruses during the earliest stages of AIDS than later, for example.

Currently, physicians may prescribe the drug Retrovir (zidovudine, or ZDV; formerly called azidothymidine, or AZT) for infected pregnant women to reduce rates of transmission. The effectiveness of this therapy increases the earlier HIV is diagnosed during the course of infection. ZDV is administered to women with HIV if their RNA is greater than 1,000 near delivery. Otherwise, women can continue their antiretroviral treatment while pregnant.

Can HIV Be Transmitted Through Oral Sex?

HIV can be transmitted through the exchange of body fluids (e.g. blood, semen, saliva, and vaginal secretions). HIV is transmittable through all forms of sexual intercourse (oral, vaginal, and anal) when one or both partners are infected with HIV, but the risk varies by act and based on the sex of each partner.

In men, pre-ejaculation fluid can carry HIV, which can be absorbed into the thin mucous linings of the mouth. As a result, giving oral sex to a male without a latex condom places you at risk of exposure to HIV. On the other hand, the risk of HIV transmission when giving oral sex to a woman is extremely low: no cases of transmission via this route have been reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using a latex condom during oral sex to decrease the risk of HIV exposure.

Testing Positive

A window period is the time between when a person was potentially infected with the HIV virus and the time when an HIV screening test will provide an accurate result. Generally, it is a six-week to a six-month period from the moment of your last unsafe sex encounter to the moment that you receive an HIV screening.

This is the time your body uses to create antibodies in the bloodstream, which signify exposure to HIV. This process is known as seroconversion.

It is important when receiving an HIV test to ask what kind of test is being used. There are two types of HIV screenings:

  • a reactive test
  • a confirmatory test

A reactive HIV test indicates if HIV antibodies are in the blood (such as the Elisa test or an antibody-antigen test).

A reactive test may give a false positive reading to the following people:

  • anyone with kidney or renal failure
  • women who have had multiple pregnancies
  • anyone who recently received the influenza vaccine
  • anyone that has received gamma globulin

When a reactive test has a negative result, that means no HIV antibodies were detected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a second or "confirmatory" test to ensure the accuracy of an initial test. You should abstain from all sexual activity or practice safe sex in every sexual situation before a second round of testing. However, confirmatory testing can also be performed in tandem with an initial test—there is no need to wait.

A confirmatory test, such as the Western blot, provides the HIV status of a person. A positive test result on a confirmatory test means that the person has been infected with HIV, has HIV antibodies in his or her blood, and can infect others.

Being HIV positive does not mean that the person has acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or that it is 100 percent guaranteed that the person will get AIDS, though research has shown that it is likely to happen. However, you will not develop AIDS if you start antiretroviral therapy.

Risks to Lesbians

HIV is a virus without any preference for sexual orientation, gender, race, or class. It is important to remember that just because a couple is composed of two women, neither party is immune to HIV, though the risk is lower.

HIV can be transmitted when infected blood or vaginal secretions come into contact with a woman's genitals, mouth, or open cuts anywhere on the body. It is important to wear a latex glove with hand-to-vagina contact to prevent the spread of HIV. However, you cannot get HIV from co-masturbation.

Oral sex between lesbians may still pose a threat to HIV transmission. Sex toys should not be inserted directly in the vagina or around the genital area or anus after they have been in another woman's vagina. This can spread vaginal infections and STDs.

However, the risk of transmission from oral sex between lesbians is extremely low: in fact, there have been no reported cases. For utmost safety, a dental dam, a split latex glove, or condom is recommended during lesbian sex in order to protect both parties.

Adapted from the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services.

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