HIV Symptoms in Women

Dr. Babak Ashrafi

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 05 May 2022

One of the most common symptoms of HIV in women is feeling like you have a flu like illness a few weeks after you’ve been infected with HIV. Women can also get changes to their periods, increased yeast infections, such as thrush, or vaginal sores. HIV increases the risk of getting other serious complications related to women’s health.

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You should get tested for HIV if you’ve had unprotected sex, especially if it was with someone whose HIV status is unknown. Testing for HIV is not complicated and only requires a simple blood test. You can speak to your doctor to arrange this blood test or request a home test kit from ZAVA.

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What is HIV?

HIV is the name of a virus called the human immunodeficiency virus. It’s a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI). HIV can cause damage to your immune system, making it weaker to fight off other infections.

HIV can live in your body for many years and there is currently no cure. Your immune system fights off many bacteria and viruses every day to keep you healthy. With HIV weakening your immune system, even a simple cold virus can make you feel very unwell.

You can get HIV from unprotected sex or being exposed to the body fluids, such as blood, of those that are HIV positive. For this reason, you should never share syringes, needles, razor blades or swabs that may have another person’s blood on them.

If you are HIV positive and are pregnant or breastfeeding, there’s a chance you can spread the infection to your baby.

There are 3 stages of HIV infection:

  • acute HIV infection
  • chronic HIV infection
  • acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

AIDS is a serious condition where your body will be extremely sensitive to infections. These infections can lead to other long term diseases, as your immune system is unable to fight them off. People who have AIDS and do not get treatment have a short life expectancy.

By getting tested for HIV and taking regular treatment, you can prevent the progression of the disease by suppressing the virus’s growth in your body. This means your immune system can function better and you prevent the development of AIDS.

Early HIV symptoms

The early symptoms of HIV can feel like having the flu. This is called the acute stage of HIV infection.

When you contract HIV, you may have flu like symptoms around 2 to 4 weeks after being infected. These symptoms are the same in women and men. However, not everyone will get symptoms of an acute HIV infection.

These acute symptoms of HIV in women include:

  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • sore throat
  • feeling very tired
  • night sweats
  • rashes
  • swollen glands (lymph nodes)

These symptoms do not mean you definitely have HIV. If you feel unwell after having unprotected sex, it’s best to get tested for any STI including HIV. You may need to wait 6 weeks to 3 months to test for HIV, depending on which test you use, as it takes time to reach detectable levels in your body. Getting treatment for HIV during the early stages of the infection gives you the best chance of living a long and healthy life.

An early symptom of HIV can be a rash. Rashes can be caused by the virus itself or as a side effect of antiretroviral treatment. An HIV rash can appear anywhere on your body, but mostly on the shoulders, chest, and face. You can use over the counter steroid creams to treat the rash if recommended by a pharmacist or doctor.

Later HIV symptoms

You may not always get symptoms that occur in later HIV (also known as chronic HIV). In many people, chronic HIV will be symptom free. This is especially dangerous if you have not been tested for HIV as you can pass the virus to a sexual partner.

The chronic stage of HIV can last up to 10 years. During this time you might have no symptoms at all. If you take antiretroviral treatment during this stage, you can prevent HIV from developing into AIDS.

Chronic stage symptoms of HIV in women can include:

  • unusual weight loss
  • diarrhoea
  • fever
  • ulcers in your mouth or stomach
  • feeling very tired
  • breathing difficulties
  • coughing
  • recurrent thrush or bacterial vaginosis infections
  • recurrent herpes infections

Some signs of HIV in women involve changes to your menstrual cycle. This can impact your periods and make your bleeding lighter or heavier than normal. HIV can also make premenstrual symptoms (the symptoms you get a week before your period) or menopause symptoms more severe.

Another sign of HIV in women is recurrent infections that lead to vaginal yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. These infections are often easy to treat but if you have HIV it can make it more difficult. This is because your immune system is weaker than normal due to HIV.

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection that affects the ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes in women. PID is often treated with antibiotics but can be more difficult to treat if you have HIV.

Untreated HIV can also lead to other complications such as cervical cancer in women.

What causes HIV?

HIV is mostly caused by having unprotected sex. This means having sex without a barrier, such as condoms. Both vaginal sex and anal sex carry a risk of transmitting HIV. You’re less likely to get HIV with oral sex, but this can still happen if your partner’s viral load is high or there is an exchange of blood.

HIV is transferred through body fluids including blood and fluids from the penis or vagina. This means kissing, hugging or sharing a towel will not spread the infection. The infected body fluid has to come into contact with your blood for you to get HIV.

Body fluids like semen, blood and vaginal fluid can transmit HIV. If you’re breastfeeding, you can pass HIV on to your baby through breast milk.

The lining of your anus and genitals is much thinner than the rest of your body. This means the virus can pass through the lining more easily and get into your bloodstream through cuts or tears.

Once the virus is in your blood, it will get inside a white blood cell called CD4 cells. White blood cells normally help fight off infections by detecting viruses and bacteria and killing them. When HIV takes over a CD4 cell, it will replicate itself to produce thousands more of the virus. HIV will then kill the CD4 cell.

When you have a weakened immune system, this means you’re more likely to get opportunistic infections. Opportunistic infections remain inactive in your body until there’s an opportunity to spread, such as when the number of CD4 cells you have is reduced.

Your doctor may count how many CD4 cells you have by doing a blood test if you are diagnosed with HIV. If you have a low CD4 cell count, you’ll be at risk of getting AIDS.

Treatment and diagnosis

HIV is diagnosed using a blood test. You can do this test with your doctor, sexual health clinic or using an at home test kit. If you’re pregnant, speak to your doctor or midwife. They can arrange for an HIV blood test during your pregnancy checkups.

HIV is treated using antiretroviral therapy. These medications stop the virus from replicating inside your immune cells.

HIV tests

You should complete an HIV test around 45 days after you think you’ve been infected. Before 45 days, your viral load will be too low to detect. If you’ve been exposed to HIV within 72 hours (3 days), speak to your doctor immediately. They can recommend you start post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment straight away to suppress the HIV virus.

Different tests will look for different aspects of HIV. A nucleic acid test (NAT) and antigen/antibody test require a blood sample that is sent away to a lab. An HIV antibody test is a rapid test that can be done at home.

The most commonly used lab test for HIV is an antibody/antigen test, which is what we sell at ZAVA. This test detects antibodies and antigens of the virus. Your immune system produces antibodies when it detects a foreign substance in your body, like a virus or bacteria. An antigen is a part of the virus, like a protein, that activates your immune system.

You can request an HIV test kit from ZAVA without making an appointment. Simply fill out our consultation questionnaire which our doctors will review. We can send the test kit straight to your door in discreet packaging, or you can collect it from a Post Office.

Our test kits are sent to our accredited lab partner. This is the same lab that tests for NHS samples and other clinics. Our HIV tests are 99.8% accurate if you’ve been infected with HIV 45 days before taking the test.

Once your test is received by the lab, you’ll get your results within 2 to 3 working days. Your results will be sent straight to your confidential ZAVA account.

Depending on your test results, you may need to do a second HIV test a few weeks later.

HIV treatment

To get treated for HIV, speak to a doctor or HIV clinic. They’ll advise you on the best treatment to take. It’s important to take your antiretroviral medication as prescribed to keep your level of the virus low. You can be prescribed more than 1 antiretroviral medication as the virus can sometimes adapt to avoid treatment.

If you think you’re at risk of getting HIV, you can take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatment. PrEP can be taken by HIV negative people to prevent getting HIV. Before you can be prescribed PrEP, you’ll need to do some blood tests to make sure your body can tolerate the medication. This includes testing for:

  • HIV
  • kidney function
  • hepatitis B and hepatitis C

You’ll also need to do an HIV test every 3 months of taking PrEP, and others annually if you wish to continue taking PrEP.

You can request PrEP from ZAVA or speak to a doctor to find out more.

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Medically reviewed by:
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion

Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.

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Last reviewed: 05 May 2022

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