HIV in Women

Physical and psychological HIV symptoms in women

Last reviewed: 18 Mar 2019

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Key takeaways

  • Symptoms of HIV take place in stages; Early Stages of HIV can include short ‘flu-like’ symptoms, Mid-stage can be a period of up to ten years where few symptoms are experienced and Advanced HIV symptoms can include fatigue, weight-loss and dementia

  • Some vaginal HIV symptoms can occur in women, such as yeast infections, abnormal Pap smears, pelvic inflammatory disease and unusual menstrual cycles

  • If you believe you have contracted HIV, you can order an HIV Testing Kit from our website and have it discreetly delivered to your door

Contents of this article

43% of all new HIV infections worldwide are diagnosed in women.

It is important to know the HIV symptoms that are more common amongst women than men.

You can't tell from looking at someone whether or not they've got HIV. The only way of knowing for sure, is by taking a test. You can order an HIV testing kit from our website and learn your status within 2 days of your sample reaching our lab.

What are the symptoms of HIV in women?

In general, the symptoms of HIV in women aren't all that different to those a man would experience:

  • Early stages of HIV: A short "flu-like" illness that occurs about 2 weeks after infection. Read more about the symptoms of HIV
  • Mid-stage HIV: A latency period of up to ten years where few (if any) symptoms are experienced. Swollen or painful glands are likely to be the main indication of HIV infection during this time
  • Advanced HIV: Constitutional symptoms such as fatigue, weight-loss and dementia can signify an HIV infection is advancing into its later stages

However, there are some vaginal HIV symptoms that can occur in women:

  • Vaginal yeast infections
  • Abnormal Pap smears
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Unusual menstrual cycles

There are also some HIV symptoms that are more common in women than men, such as psychological symptoms.

Yeast infections

Women who are HIV-positive are more likely to have frequent and persistent yeast infections, and these infections are likely to be resistant to standard over-the-counter medications.

These infections occur because of an organism imbalance and a weakened immune system.

Symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection:

  • Burning and itching in the vaginal/ vulva area.
  • Soreness of the vagina.
  • Pain during intercourse and/or urination.
  • Whitish, odourless vaginal discharge. Discharge is not always present.

Yeast infections may appear and disappear in conjunction with hormonal variations associated with a woman's menstrual cycle.

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Abnormal cervical smears

A cervical (Pap) smear test is a screening test that's used to detect potentially precancerous and cancerous material found within the cervical canal. A common precursor to cervical cancer in women is abnormal cell growth brought on by HPV (human papillomavirus).

HIV positive women are at an increased risk of contracting HPV infection and so are more likely to have abnormal cervical smear results. The HIV virus can attack cervical cells and eventually may lead to cancer if not caught in time. This is why newly infected HIV-positive women are encouraged to take 6-monthly smear tests (which then decreases to annual ones if no abnormality is found).

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of a woman's pelvic organs (i.e. uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries) and it can be one of the first symptoms of HIV in women.

PID is caused by bacteria that start in a woman's vagina or cervix (usually from gonorrhoea or chlamydia) and move up into her fallopian tubes, ovaries and uterus, causing infection. After being infected, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few months to develop PID.

Symptoms of PID include:

  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Fever
  • Pain in the upper right abdomen
  • Painful intercourse
  • Irregular menstrual bleeding

These may be minor or severe, or may not appear at all.

Untreated PID can lead to internal scarring and infertility, ectopic pregnancies, pelvic abscesses, chronic pelvic pain and other serious complications

Menstrual changes

As HIV progresses, changes in your immune system can affect the way your body makes and maintains levels of different hormones including testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone. Changes in the amount of oestrogen and progesterone can interfere with menstrual cycles.

HIV positive women may experience:

  • More (or less) frequent periods
  • Periods that last for longer than usual
  • Missed periods
  • Heavier or lighter periods
  • No period for 90 days or more (amenorrhea)
  • Spotting (bleeding) between periods

Menstrual irregularities are less common in people with a high CD4 cell count and low viral load (usually those who are already taking anti-HIV medication) so the presence of these symptoms could hint at undiagnosed HIV in women.

Genital ulcers, warts or herpes

Genital ulcers can be a symptom of HIV in women. If you find ulcers, you should see a doctor immediately.

Herpes is also more common in women with HIV (particularly those with a low CD4 cell count) so frequent and persistent herpes infections could be an indication of HIV.

Symptoms of herpes:

  • Painful blisters or open sores around the genital area.
  • Tingling or burning in legs, buttocks and genitals prior to sores appearing.

Psychological symptoms

While some psychological symptoms of HIV may occur in men, they are both more common and more severe amongst HIV positive women.

Common psychological symptoms of HIV in women are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive forgetfulness
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Dementia

These physchological symptoms may be harder to treat than some of the physical symptoms.

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Dr Nicholas Antonakopoulos graduated from the University of London in 2006. He did his postgraduate training in hospitals in the London area, and he trained for four years in Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery before completing his training in General practice in 2015.

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Last reviewed: 18 Mar 2019

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