Of all the viruses that threaten the human population, HIV has become the scariest and the most cursed virus. In 2019, around 38 million people from across the globe were HIV patients. India has become the third-largest HIV hotspot in the world with over 2.1 million HIV patients.
Women account for more than half of the patients living with HIV. Adolescent girls of age 10-15 and young women of age 15-24 are more likely to be infected by the virus when compared to men of the same age. Due to poverty, lack of education, and proper health services, several women succumb to the virus at a younger age. Hence, it is significant to know the HIV symptoms in women to eradicate it at an earlier stage.
Here’s a brief article that gives a detailed account of HIV and AIDS, and the signs and symptoms of HIV in women.
What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus, abbreviated as HIV, is a retrovirus that targets and deteriorates the human immune system. HIV infects our body’s vital immune cells such as CD4+ T cells ( helper T cells), macrophages, and microglial cells of the body. An HIV-positive patient has an estimated lifespan of 9 to 11 years.
HIV is transmitted by direct contact with body fluids such as blood, vaginal discharge, semen, and breast milk. This body fluid exchange takes place during homosexual or heterosexual, and promiscuous sexual activities. HIV does not transmit through modes such as air, water, sweat, and saliva and by skin-to-skin contact such as hugging, shaking hands, and kissing.
An HIV-positive pregnant woman is likely to transmit the virus to the developing fetus in her womb. Usually, HIV infections occur due to transfusion of HIV-positive blood and the use of unsterilized syringes.
HIV enters the helper T cells by adsorbing the glycoprotein surface of the cells and releasing the virulent HIV capsid into the cell. The capsid incorporates the cell’s DNA, making it a lifelong health condition. Gradually, the virus spreads and kills the CD4+ T cells.
The decline in these immune cells below a critical level may lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as the cell-mediated immunity of the body is lost.
AIDS is a condition in which the immune system of the body fails and makes the body prone to life-threatening infections and diseases. It is caused during the final stage of HIV infection. A person with HIV may or may not develop AIDS, depending on the extent of infection. While there is no cure for AIDS, it can be treated up to a certain extent after the diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms of HIV in women
Are the HIV symptoms in women and men different? Though most symptoms are similar, there are certain differences in the impact of the virus on both genders. Here are a few common symptoms of HIV in women:
1. Initial fever:
Usually, HIV symptoms in women might be absent during the initial stages of infection. Within a few weeks or a month of exposure to the virus, some women experience flu-like symptoms such as
- Swollen tonsils or lymph nodes
- Extreme tiredness
- Rashes on the skin
These symptoms decline in a week or so like a viral infection. The virus remains active within the body and can be transmitted from one person to another. For some women, it may take about ten years to identify HIV symptoms.
2. Rashes in the skin:
HIV comes along with skin issues in most women. The rashes on the skin may be due to HIV or due to opportunistic infections due to failure of the immune system.
HIV-positive women may also experience sores or blisters on their mouth genitals, and anus. The intensity of these skin problems can be diminished by skin treatment.
3. Low-grade fever:
Frequent occurrence of low-grade fever ( body temperature between 99.8 ℉ to 100.8 ℉) is one of the most common HIV symptoms in women. It is not easy to detect low-grade fevers when you are not aware that you have contracted the virus. At night, night chills and night sweats are common due to which an HIV patient is deprived of proper sleep.
3. Weight loss:
Approximately, more than 10% of body weight is lost in HIV patients due to long-lasting fever, nausea, and diarrhea. A sudden loss in weight is usually noticed during the advanced stages of HIV infection. Weight loss in earlier stages may be due to :
- Opportunistic infections
- Hormonal imbalance
- Change in nutrition
- Effect of medicines and drugs
4. Opportunistic infections:
When the body’s immune system fails due to the deterioration of the helper T cells, the body is prone to any kind of microbial infection. These infections might end up being severe as the body doesn’t have adequate immune cells to fight against pathogens.
The lymph nodes and glands present in the neck, armpits, and groins are infected at first. These glands and nodes enlarge into swollen glands and may last for a long time.
Some of the opportunistic infections are candidiasis ( oral and vaginal), recurrent pneumonia, tuberculosis, coccidioidomycosis, herpes, mycobacterial infections, and intestinal isosporiasis.
5. Vaginal infections:
Vaginal infections and inflammations are usually caused by the yeast called Candida, which is normally found in fewer amounts in the vagina. The yeast infections cause severe itching in the genitals, change in color of the vaginal discharge, pain during urination, and vaginal bleeding. Vaginal infections can also be caused by bacterial overgrowth leading to bacterial vaginosis.
Sometimes, women with HIV are also prone to contracting other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as genital herpes and genital warts.
6. Changes in the menstrual cycle:
HIV-positive women may experience severe premenstrual symptoms such as tender breasts, mood swings, and depression. Irregular periods are one of the predominant HIV symptoms in women. Others may experience lighter or heavier periods than the normal condition.
7. Inflammation in the reproductive organs:
One of the general HIV symptoms in women is Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). It is hard to treat PID in women with HIV as it involves a lot of risks. The inflammation affects the reproductive organs such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes (oviducts), and the uterus.
8. Advanced symptoms:
The severe symptoms of HIV in women include:
- Weight loss
- Chronic cough
- Severe headache and fatigue
- Joint pain
- Breathing difficulties
- Short-term memory loss
When there is no cure to be found, “Prevention is better than cure.” Here are a few preventive measures to reduce the risk of HIV symptoms in women:
- Avoid promiscuous sexual activity with several partners.
- Avoid douching after sex.
- Avoid sharing needles and syringes.
- Use condoms to prevent other STDs.
- Consult a doctor to consume pre-exposure prophylaxis to avoid contracting HIV.
It is a fact that the word HIV sends shivers down our spines but it would be better if society considers abating the stereotypes. Every HIV-positive patient should choose to stay positive and face the obstacle rather than giving up easily. And a day will arrive soon when a permanent cure for HIV will save the lives of many!