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HIV in Women: Symptoms, Causes, & Prevention

HIV in Women

Table of Contents

HIV in women presents distinct challenges influenced by biological, social, and economic factors. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic and potentially life-threatening disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV impairs your body’s ability to fight infection and disease.

HIV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It can also be spread through contact with contaminated blood and illegal injection drug use or sharing needles. It can also spread from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. Without medication, it can take years for HIV to weaken your immune system to the point where you develop AIDS.

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but medications can control the infection and prevent the disease from progressing. Antiretroviral treatments for HIV have reduced AIDS-related deaths worldwide, and international organizations are working to increase access to prevention and treatment measures in resource-poor countries.

HIV symptoms in females

HIV symptoms in females

HIV symptoms in females are similar to those in males and can vary from person to person. It’s important to note that some individuals may not experience noticeable symptoms for many years after contracting the virus. When symptoms do occur, they are often non-specific and can be mistaken for other common illnesses. Typical early symptoms of HIV in females may include:

  • Flu-Like Symptoms: Many people experience flu-like symptoms within a few weeks of contracting HIV. These symptoms include fever, chills, fatigue, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes.
  • Skin Rash: HIV can cause a rash, often with red or purple blotches or sores. These skin issues can be itchy and uncomfortable.
  • Oral and Genital Ulcers: Painful sores or ulcers in the mouth or genital area can occur.
  • Recurrent Infections: Women with HIV may be more prone to recurrent vaginal yeast infections, urinary tract infections, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
  • Menstrual Irregularities: Some women with HIV may experience irregular menstrual cycles or changes in their menstrual patterns.
  • Vaginal Infections: HIV can increase the risk of bacterial and fungal vaginal infections, leading to symptoms such as itching, burning, or abnormal discharge.
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID): HIV infection may increase the risk of PID, which can lead to abdominal pain, fever, and pain during intercourse.
  • Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss, often accompanied by chronic diarrhea, can be a symptom of more advanced HIV infection.
  • Neurological Symptoms: In some cases, HIV can lead to neurological symptoms, such as memory problems, confusion, or even depression.
  • Opportunistic Infections: As HIV weakens the immune system, women are at increased risk of developing opportunistic infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and certain fungal infections.

It’s essential to remember that the absence of symptoms does not necessarily indicate the absence of HIV. Many people living with HIV, both male and female, may remain asymptomatic for years.

HIV symptoms in females

Risk factors

Anyone of any age, race, gender, or sexual orientation can become infected with HIV/AIDS. However, you’re at greatest risk of HIV/AIDS if you:

  • Have unprotected sex: Use a new latex or polyurethane condom every time you have sex. Anal sex is more dangerous than vaginal sex. If you have multiple sexual partners, your risk of contracting HIV increases.
  • Have an STI: Many sexually transmitted diseases cause open sores in the genital area. These wounds act as a door for HIV to enter the body.
  • Use illicit injection drugs: People who use illegal injection drugs often share needles and syringes. This exposes them to drops of other people’s blood.

HIV stages

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infection progresses through several stages, from initial infection to more advanced disease. The stages of HIV infection are typically categorized into three main phases: acute HIV infection, chronic or asymptomatic HIV infection, and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Acute HIV infection

This is the initial stage that occurs shortly after HIV exposure. Symptoms, if they occur, can resemble the flu and may include fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, rash, muscle aches, and headache.

During this phase, the virus is replicating rapidly, and HIV antibodies may not be detectable on standard tests.

Chronic or symptomatic HIV infection

After the acute phase, HIV enters a clinical latency stage, often referred to as asymptomatic or chronic HIV infection. During this stage, the virus replicates at lower levels, and individuals may experience no or only mild symptoms. This phase can last for many years, and people can live with HIV without significant illness.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)

AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection and typically occurs when the immune system is severely damaged. A diagnosis of AIDS is made when an individual’s CD4 T-cell count (a measure of immune function) falls below a certain level (usually below 200 cells/mm³) or when they develop certain opportunistic infections or cancers. Opportunistic infections associated with AIDS can include tuberculosis, pneumonia, candidiasis, and others. AIDS is a serious condition that can lead to life-threatening complications, and individuals with AIDS have a compromised immune system.

It’s important to note that not everyone with HIV will progress to AIDS, especially if they are diagnosed early and receive appropriate medical care, including antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART is a combination of medications that can suppress the replication of the virus and slow the progression of the disease. With effective treatment, many people with HIV can live long and healthy lives and may never progress to the AIDS stage.

Regular monitoring of CD4 cell counts and viral load, along with adherence to ART and medical care, is essential for managing HIV and preventing the progression to AIDS. Early diagnosis, treatment, and preventive measures, such as safe sex and needle exchange programs, are crucial in addressing the HIV epidemic.


HIV diagnosis involves specific tests to detect the presence of the virus in an individual’s body.

HIV antibody test

HIV antibody test

The most common method for HIV diagnosis is an antibody test. This test looks for antibodies the body produces in response to the virus. Most people develop detectable HIV antibodies within a few weeks to a few months after infection. The most widely used HIV antibody test is the enzyme immunoassay (EIA) or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA).

HIV confirmatory test

If the initial antibody test is positive, a confirmatory test is typically performed to ensure the accuracy of the result. The Western blot and indirect immunofluorescence assay (IFA) are commonly used confirmatory tests.

Fourth-generation HIV test

This test, also known as the combination or combo test, can detect HIV antibodies and antigens (specific proteins produced by the virus) within a few weeks of infection. It’s more sensitive and can provide earlier detection compared to antibody-only tests.

Rapid HIV test

Rapid tests provide results in about 20-30 minutes. They can be performed with a blood sample, oral fluid, or urine. Rapid tests are convenient for quick screening, particularly in clinics, community centers, or at-home testing.

Nucleic acid test (NAT)

NAT, also known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing, directly detects the genetic material (RNA) of the virus. It is highly sensitive and can detect HIV earlier than antibody tests.

Point-of-Care (POC) Testing

POC tests are designed for use in non-laboratory settings, such as clinics, and provide rapid results. They are often used in resource-limited areas to increase access to HIV testing and diagnosis.

It’s important to note that HIV testing is voluntary and confidential. Many healthcare providers and clinics offer HIV testing and counseling services. When someone receives an HIV diagnosis, it’s essential to seek medical care and consider starting antiretroviral therapy (ART) to manage the virus and protect one’s health. Additionally, individuals who test positive for HIV should take steps to prevent transmission to others, such as practicing safe sex and not sharing needles.


HIV infection weakens the immune system and increases the risk of many infections and certain types of cancer.

Infections common to HIV/AIDS

This fungal infection can cause severe illness. Although significantly reduced with current treatments for HIV/AIDS, in the United States, PCP remains the most common cause of pneumonia in people infected with HIV.

Candidiasis (thrush)

Candidiasis is a common infection associated with HIV. This causes inflammation and a thick, white coating on the mouth, tongue, esophagus, or vagina.

Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis is a common opportunistic infection associated with HIV. Worldwide, tuberculosis is the leading cause of death among people with AIDS.


This common herpes virus is transmitted in body fluids such as saliva, blood, urine, semen, and breast milk. A healthy immune system inactivates the virus and remains dormant in the body. If the immune system is weakened, the virus can reappear and cause damage to the eyes, digestive tract, lungs, or other organs.

Cryptococcal meningitis

Meningitis is inflammation of the membrane and fluid around your brain and spinal cord (meninges). Cryptococcal meningitis is a common HIV-related central nervous system infection caused by a soil-borne fungus.


This potentially fatal infection is caused by Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite spread primarily by cats. Infected cats shed parasites in their feces, which can be spread to other animals and humans. Toxoplasmosis can cause heart disease and seizures when it spreads to the brain.



The treatment for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) primarily involves antiretroviral therapy (ART), a combination of medications that are highly effective at slowing the progression of the virus, reducing the viral load (the amount of virus in the body), and improving the immune system’s function.

Suppressing the virus

ART aims to reduce the amount of HIV in the bloodstream to undetectable levels. This is referred to as “viral suppression.” When the virus is undetectable, it is highly unlikely to be transmitted to others through sexual contact.

Restoring the immune system

ART helps to increase CD4 T-cell counts, which are a measure of immune system health. A higher CD4 count indicates a stronger immune system.

Preventing opportunistic infections

By suppressing the virus and boosting the immune system, ART reduces the risk of opportunistic infections in people with compromised immune systems.

Improving quality of life

Effective treatment can significantly enhance the quality and duration of life for people living with HIV, allowing them to lead healthy, active lives.

Here are some key points to consider regarding HIV treatment:

  • Early Initiation: It is recommended to start ART as soon as possible after an HIV diagnosis, irrespective of CD4 count. Early treatment helps to preserve the immune system and prevent the development of AIDS-related complications.
  • Adherence: Adherence to ART is crucial. Medications must be taken consistently and as prescribed by a healthcare provider to maintain viral suppression and prevent drug resistance.
  • Monitoring: Regular monitoring of viral load and CD4 counts helps healthcare providers assess treatment efficacy and make adjustments when necessary.
  • Drug Combinations: ART typically consists of a combination of drugs from different classes, such as nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs), non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs), protease inhibitors (PIs), integrase inhibitors, and entry/fusion inhibitors. Combinations are tailored to the individual’s needs and the stage of the disease.
  • Potential Side Effects: Some HIV medications can have side effects, and these should be discussed with a healthcare provider.
  • Drug Resistance: In cases of poor adherence or treatment failure, the virus may develop resistance to certain drugs. It is important to adhere to treatment and seek healthcare provider guidance if issues arise.

HIV treatment should be managed in consultation with a healthcare provider who specializes in HIV care. The choice of ART regimen and the timing of treatment initiation may vary depending on individual circumstances and considerations. Effective treatment can allow people living with HIV to lead fulfilling lives while managing their infection.

The bottom line

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Once people are infected with HIV, they have it for life. However with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. People with HIV who receive effective HIV treatment can live long, healthy lives and protect their partners.

Additional questions

  1. How does HIV become AIDS?

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) can progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) over time if left untreated. The transition from HIV to AIDS is characterized by a significant weakening of the immune system and the development of certain opportunistic infections or cancers.

  1. What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lungs caused by various infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. It is characterized by inflammation and infection of the air sacs in the lungs, leading to the accumulation of fluid, pus, and cellular debris, which can make it difficult to breathe. Pneumonia can range from mild to severe and can be a life-threatening illness, especially in vulnerable populations like the very young, the elderly, or individuals with weakened immune systems.

  1. What are common cancers of HIV/AIDS?
  • Lymphoma
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma
  • HPV-related cancers
  1. What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lungs caused by various infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. It is characterized by inflammation and infection of the air sacs in the lungs, leading to the accumulation of fluid, pus, and cellular debris, which can make it difficult to breathe.

  1. What is Toxoplasma gondii?

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic protozoan responsible for toxoplasmosis. It primarily spreads through contact with cat feces or undercooked meat, though transmission can occur from mother to fetus. Most healthy individuals experience mild or no symptoms, but those with weakened immune systems or newborns infected during pregnancy can suffer severe consequences. Preventative measures include cooking meat thoroughly, practicing good hygiene, and avoiding cat feces.  Toxoplasmosis is widespread, but its impact varies, making prevention and awareness crucial.