HIV is a sexually transmitted disease which is transmitted through person-to-person contact by infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids. This usually occurs as a result of unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner, or through unsterilized drug use and use of infected needles. The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 to 64 get tested for HIV at least once, and that those with higher risk factors get tested every year.
In 2014, around 250,000 women in the US were found to have HIV. According to the CDC, women made up about 19% of all new HIV diagnoses in 2014 with 87% of those resulting from sexual intercourse with a male partner and the remaining 13% resulting from intravenous drug use. If HIV is left untreated for too long, it can lead to more advanced symptoms which are more difficult to treat. The latest stage of HIV results in the condition we know as AIDS. Because of this, early diagnosis is crucial in improving your chances for a better quality of life.
Risk Factors of HIV
Certain factors dramatically increase the risk of developing HIV. These include intravenous drug use – such as injecting and sharing needles, having other STD’s such as syphilis or hepatitis, having tuberculosis, and having vaginal or anal sex with those affected. If any of these risk factors apply to you, it is that much more important for you to get tested.
Early Symptoms in Women
Within the first few weeks of contracting HIV, those infected experience something called seroconversion in which the virus rapidly multiplies. During this time, they will often develop a flu-like illness called an acute HIV infection. The person will then develop various cold and flu-like symptoms including fatigue, headaches, coughing and sneezing, congestion, and a low-grade fever. These symptoms typically last anywhere from 1 week to 1 month, and are generally very similar in men and women.
In addition to these symptoms, women in particular may experience various other symptoms including swollen lymph nodes, vaginal infections, and menstrual changes.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
After the acute infection, many women experience swollen lymph nodes. Your lymph nodes are found in certain parts of your body including your neck, groin and armpits. Our lymph nodes work to protect our blood and overall immune system as they are responsible for producing mature immune cells in our bodies. They also work to produce antibodies and rid the body of bacteria and viruses.
Women may experience a swollen neck, or swelling under their jaw or behind their ears. They also may experience difficulty swallowing. These symptoms can last from between a few days to several months. Having swollen lymph nodes are often an early indicator of infection. When lymph nodes swell, they may appear as hard bumps about the size of beans. With progression of the infection, more lymph nodes in the body may begin to swell. It is recommended that you call your doctor if you have swollen lymph nodes that last more than 2 to 4 weeks.
Higher Risk of Opportunistic Infections (OI’s)
When a person develops HIV, the body’s immune system must focus so much energy on fighting off the HIV virus that it becomes increasingly difficult for the body to fight off any other infections. Because of this, those HIV-infected individuals have a much higher risk of opportunistic infections (OI’s).
Opportunistic infections occur as a result of pathogens which take hold on those with weakened immune systems. Infections such as pneumonia or tuberculosis can occur and develop with more severe symptoms as a result of the body’s inability to fight off infections.
Those affected with HIV also are more prone to infections of the eyes, skin, lungs, kidneys, digestive tract, and brain. They also find it more difficult to fight off even more common illnesses such as the flu. Through the use of antiretroviral medications and general hygiene practices such as frequent handwashing, the overall risk of developing OI’s can be dramatically reduced.
Vaginal Yeast Infections
Another common early symptom of HIV is vaginal yeast infections. Yeast infections are common fungal infections of the genitals which cause itching, inflammation, and vaginal discharge. Symptoms also include painful sex and urination as well as burning in and around the vagina. In women with HIV, these infections are likely to occur more frequently and appear with more severe symptoms.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease is an infection of the female reproductive organs which is estimated to affect around 5% of women in the US. PID particularly affects a woman’s uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix, and ovaries.
There are several types of bacteria which can cause PID including many of the same bacteria that cause STI’s such as gonorrhea. In women who are HIV-positive, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease has been found much more difficult to treat and also accompanied by longer-lasting or frequently recurring symptoms.
Increased or Worsening Symptoms of Other STD’s
Those affected with HIV may also be at risk of developing other STD’s and experiencing more severe symptoms from those infections. HPV (Human Papillomavirus) often affects those with HIV more severely. Those with HPV experience genital warts. Those with genital herpes can also experience more intense and more frequent outbreaks.
Many people who have HIV experience low-grade fevers with a temperature between 99.8 and 100.8. Fevers are generally accompanied by various other symptoms such as chills, headaches, aching muscles, and general weakness and fatigue. Many people also experience night sweats which can cause excessive perspiration and interfere with sleep. Fevers can result from various infections and illnesses but if you have a recurring low-grade fever without an identified cause, it might be a good idea to get tested.
Many women who are tested positive for HIV experience changes to their menstrual cycle such as heavier or lighter periods. Other women may find they miss their periods which can occur as a result of changes in their eating habits or decreased appetite. Due to fluctuations in hormone levels, typical menstrual symptoms such as cramps, breast tenderness and fatigue can worsen as well.
Skin Changes and Rashes
Those affected with HIV can frequently experience unusual spots on their skin which can appear red, pink, brown, or purple in color. These spots can be found on the mouth, nose, or eyelids. People may also develop sores on their genitals or anus. Skin rashes can also occur commonly along with HIV. These rashes may result from HIV itself or from another infection. If you experience these, it’s a good idea to get these unusual spots or skin conditions examined by your doctor.
Mood Changes and Neurological Conditions
HIV is often accompanied by many changes to the overall mood and brain function. Many people infected with HIV will develop mental health disorders such as depression or experience worsening symptoms. They also experience memory loss, confusion, and increased stress levels. In later stages, these symptoms can become more severe and impact a person’s brain function more dramatically.
Advanced Symptoms and AIDS
When left untreated, more severe and recurring symptoms can occur in those affected with HIV. Eventually, those affected may develop the condition of AIDS which occurs at the most advanced stage of the virus. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) develops as a result of serious damage to the immune system.
Once a person has developed AIDS, their immune system has already been damaged irreparably and they find it increasingly difficult to fight off infections that they previously would have. Those affected have a CD4 cell count that is below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Having AIDS also increases the risk of developing cancers including Kaposi sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cervical cancer.
Various more advanced and severe symptoms develop in the later stages of HIV/AIDS. Many of the same symptoms that occur in the early stages begin to increase in severity and frequency.
People frequently experience symptoms which affect their stomach and bowels. These include persistent diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Due to decreased appetite and changes in eating habits, this is often accompanied with rapid weight loss.
People also experience severe headaches, joint pain, and muscle aches. At this stage, they are also likely to have recurring fevers, night sweats, and chills. Additionally, symptoms may impact their respiratory systems. These can include shortness of breath, chronic cough, and difficulty swallowing.
Opportunistic infections as well as vaginal infections occur more frequently and can last longer or be more intense as the body is less capable of fighting them off.
In addition to the physical symptoms, those affected will likely develop more intense symptoms affecting their mental health. Short-term memory loss, mental confusion, and even coma can occur in addition to the symptoms caused by mental health disorders such as depression.
Transmission during Pregnancy
For pregnant women or expectant mothers, it is very important for expectant mothers to be tested as HIV can easily be passed from mother to child. This type of HIV spread from mother to child is known as perinatal HIV. This can occur at any time during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and childbirth.
Therefore, it is essential for expectant mothers with risk factors to be regularly tested throughout their pregnancy to ensure reduced risk of their child contracting the virus. Through the use of antiretroviral medications during pregnancy, cesarian birth, and antiretroviral therapy for the child after birth, the risk of transmission or progression of the virus is reduced significantly. Due to effective interventions for perinatal HIV transmission, the number of infants who get HIV from their mothers has decreased significantly in the US.
Testing and Treatment
There are multiple tests widely available and easily accessible to test for the HIV virus. These tests include antibody and antigen tests which test blood and saliva for HIV antibodies and viral components in the blood. However, these cannot detect HIV at an early stage. Nucleic acid tests are able to detect the presence of HIV genetic material in the blood and are able to detect the presence of the virus at an earlier stage. There are options to get tested at your doctor’s office or at home.
Through the convenient service, STDCheck, anyone is able to get tested with complete confidentiality and ease. Offering over 4500 centers throughout the nation, people can find a location near them and be tested privately without needing insurance.
This service allows customers to obtain the testing they need through three simple steps – ordering the necessary test online or by phone, visiting the test center, and obtaining results within 1-2 days. Often people get results within 24 hours. The entire process makes testing very discreet and straightforward – no questions asked and no paperwork required. For those who do test positive, they also offer a doctor consultation.
With recent advances in medicine, it is possible for those affected with HIV to live a reasonably normal life without the virus ever progressing to the more serious condition AIDS. Through the use of antiretroviral therapies, HIV-infected individuals generally need to take between 1 and 3 medications daily. These medications allow the virus to stop replicating and enable their immune system to fight the virus off more effectively.
Prevention And Precaution
It is essential to be aware of the risk factors and take preventative measures to develop HIV. Prevention practices include not sharing needles, always practicing safe sex, and taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications. Pre-exposure prophylaxis medications are a preventative drug for those with known risk factors of HIV.
In addition, women who are with HIV-positive partners are not at risk of developing the virus if their partner is using HIV medications daily and has achieved viral suppression. This means that there is no risk of transmission if their viral load has less than 200 copies of HIV per mL of blood. However, it is always recommended to still practice safe-sex and use condoms.
All in all, it is important to take preventative measures as much as possible. If you find yourself at risk, it is essential to recognize these early symptoms of HIV and get tested as soon as possible if you think you may have contracted the virus. Early diagnosis and treatment are critical for helping those with the virus live more normal and healthy lives.