What Are the Symptoms of HIV in Women?

Night sweats and yeast infections make this list

Tired woman
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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 also accompany HIV infection in women.

It is 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 (PID) 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; or white spots or unusual blemishes in the mouth.

Reducing the Odds of Contracting HIV

Since women constitute the most rapidly growing segment of the HIV-infected population 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 for HIV/AIDS

Currently, there is no known cure for HIV/AIDS. The best treatment right now seems to be prescription "cocktails" or combinations of prescription drugs. These medications include those for antiviral treatment and other drugs, like oral anti-fungals to combat yeast infections, which fight diseases that take advantage of the weakened immune response of HIV-infected people.

It is also important for HIV-infected women and their physicians to watch for pelvic inflammatory disease or other STDs through screening. Similarly, cervical cancer may be more common and progress more quickly in infected women; for this reason, women with HIV should have Pap smears twice a year to make sure cancer is detected and treated early.

Research Advances in HIV/AIDS

Very few women with HIV were included in early studies of the epidemic, but in 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 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 would 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.

Is HIV Transmitted to Fetuses?

Most babies born to HIV-infected women escape the virus, but 1 in 4 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 the pregnancy or birth. There are more viruses during the earliest stages of AIDS than later, for example. Currently, physicians may prescribe the drug Retrovir (AZT) for infected pregnant women to reduce rates of transmission; effectiveness of this therapy increases the earlier HIV is diagnosed during the course of infection or before or after pregnancy.

Can HIV Be Transmitted Through Oral Sex?

Yes, it can. 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.

Oral sex without a latex condom places you at risk of exposure to HIV. It should also be noted that pre-ejaculation fluid can carry HIV and it can be absorbed into the thin mucous linings of the mouth. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that during oral sex, a latex condom should be used to decrease risk of exposure.

Testing Positive for HIV

A window period is a recommended waiting period to receive an accurate HIV test result. Generally, it is a six-week to six-month period from the moment of your last unsafe sex encounter to the moment that you receive a 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. Whenever someone is screened for HIV, two types of tests are used. They are, 1) a reactive test, and 2) a confirmatory test. A reactive HIV test indicates if HIV antibodies are in the blood (such as the Elisa Test).

A reactive test may give a false positive reading to anyone with kidney or renal failure, to a woman that has had multiple pregnancies, anyone receiving the influenza vaccine, or to anyone that has received gamma globulin. When a reactive test has a negative result, that means no HIV antibodies were detected.

In order to receive an accurate reading, the CDC recommends you wait a specific window period: six weeks to six months and either abstain from all sexual activity or practice safe sex in every sexual situation and then get a confirmatory test, such as the Western Blot Test.

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.

Risks to Lesbians

HIV is a virus without any preference of 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.

HIV can be transmitted when infected blood or vaginal secretions come into contact with a woman's genitals, mouth or with open cuts anywhere on the body. Hence, it is important that when making physical contact to cover the hand with a latex glove.

Nothing should be inserted directly in the vagina or around the genital area or anus after it has been in a woman's vagina. This can spread vaginal infections and STDs.

Oral sex between lesbians may still pose a threat for HIV transmission. A dental dam, a split latex glove, or condom is recommended as safety precautions to be used during lesbian sex in order to protect both parties.

For More Information

You can find our more about women and HIV/AIDS by contacting the following organizations:

AIDS Clinical Trials Information Service (ACTIS)
Phone: (800) 874-2572 or TDD (800) 243-7012

CDC National Prevention Information Network
Phone: (800) 458-5231

HIV AIDS Treatment Information Service
Phone: (800) 448-0440 or TDD (800)-243-7012

National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention Voice Information System
Phone: (888) CDC-FACT

National Institute on Drug Abuse Hotline
Phone: (800) 662-HELP (4357) or (800)-66-AYUDA (662-9832)

Office of Population Affairs Clearinghouse
Phone: (301) 654-6190

American Foundation for AIDS Research
Phone: (202) 331-8600

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

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