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HIV In Women: Symptoms, Risk Factors, And Prevention

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HIV In Women

Women are most likely to get HIV during vaginal sex with an infected man. They experience certain side effects of AIDS medications like liver problems more frequently. Their risk of STIs is higher and they face a quicker progression to AIDS if they get HIV. Using condoms, not sharing needles, taking anti-AIDS medication, and avoiding douching can help you protect yourself. Also, prompt treatment can lower the risk of transmitting it to your baby.

Did you know that one of four people in the US living with HIV is a woman?1 HIV or the human immunodeficiency virus weakens your immune system by destroying white blood cells that protect your body against viruses, bacteria, and other germs. This leaves you vulnerable to many kinds of infection as well as certain cancers. As the infection progresses, your body may lose the ability to fight against life-threatening conditions.

Without medical care, HIV can progress through three stages, intensifying over time and wrecking your immune system. The first two stages are called acute HIV infection and clinical latency/chronic HIV infection. The final stage of HIV infection is known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).2

Men Versus Women: Are The Symptoms Of HIV Different?

Both men and women may get a flu-like illness, with symptoms like tiredness, headache, fever, and enlarged lymph nodes within a couple of months after they’re exposed to HIV. After this, they may not get symptoms for a period of around 10 years. They can, however, infect other people during this period. As the immune system weakens, they may see signs like:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Frequent fevers
  • Fatigue
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent oral yeast infections
  • Skin rashes
  • Short-term memory loss

Symptoms Of HIV In Women

Women may also show these additional symptoms:

  • Changes to the menstrual cycle (for instance, not getting periods)
  • Vaginal yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, human papillomavirus infections, as well as pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Infection of the reproductive organs3

HIV In Women

A woman may face different challenges if she is infected with HIV. Women have a higher risk of:

Infection During Vaginal Sex

Women are more likely to get infected while having vaginal sex than men. Women, in fact, suffer greater exposure to HIV during vaginal sex. This is because the surface area of the vagina is larger than that of the penis. The exposure is also longer for women as infected semen can remain in the vagina for many days after sex.4

Getting STIs

Women with HIV are more likely to get vaginal yeast infections and STIs than men with HIV. They can also be more severe and difficult to treat in women.5

Side Effects Due To HIV Medication

Side effects of HIV medication can vary from person to person. However, women experience certain side effects like liver problems or severe rash more frequently and with more severity while using certain HIV medicines. Also, some medicines may lower the effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives like birth control patches or pills.6 7

Quicker Progression To AIDS

With the same amount of virus in their bodies, HIV progresses more rapidly to AIDS in women than in men. It is thought that female hormones stimulate the immune system so that they mount a stronger response against HIV. And while stronger immune activation can be beneficial in the initial stages of the infection, the persistent replication of the virus and stronger chronic immune activation are thought to lead to faster disease progression.8

HIV And Pregnancy

One concern that a woman with HIV faces is the risk of transmitting it to her baby while pregnant or during delivery. But with medical progress, pregnant women who use HIV medicines correctly and consistently can lower their risk of having a baby with HIV from 25% to less than 1%. Do keep in mind that treatment is most effective when it’s started early in pregnancy, taken during labor and delivery, and also given to the baby after birth. Also, in some cases, the doctor may recommend a C-section to lower the risk of transmission.9

Risk Factors You Need to Look Out For

Having sex with a male partner infected with HIV is the most common way that women get infected with HIV. Your risk of getting HIV goes up with the following:

  • If you don’t use condoms.
  • If you share needles or other equipment used in injections (like swabs).
  • If you have a high-risk partner who has HIV, has sex with women as well as men, or uses drugs.
  • If you have an STI. This is because an infection can bring white blood cells (which can get infected with HIV) to the vaginal area. Some STIs may also cause hard-to-notice, minor cuts which allow HIV to enter your body.10

HIV transmission is actually rare among women with female partners. If your partner has HIV, there is, however, the risk of getting it through cuts, mouth sores, bleeding gums, and oral sex. HIV can also be spread through menstrual blood and via shared sex toys.11

Domestic Violence And Abuse Increase The Risk Of HIV

Women in abusive relationships and victims of domestic violence have been found more likely to get HIV. This is because abusive partners are more likely to have sexual partners outside the relationship. They also tend to force sex on their partners, which can result in cuts that allow HIV to enter. They may refuse to wear condoms as well.

Abuse in the past also plays a role. Women who were sexually or physically abused as children are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as not using condoms and having multiple sexual partners. This effectively raises their risk of HIV.12

Prevention Of HIV

You can take various measures to protect yourself from HIV.

Practice Safe Sex

Abstaining from sex (oral, vaginal, and anal) is the only 100% foolproof way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV.13 Since this isn’t always an option, use a male latex condom when you have sex. This is considered one of the most effective ways of preventing the transmission of HIV during sex. Female condoms can also be helpful.

Never Share Needles

A contaminated needle or syringe can put you at considerable risk of HIV. Ensure you use sterile needles every time you need one and never share needles. Use a clean, fresh alcohol swab before you inject and take care to dispose of the needle safely after use.14

Avoid High-Risk Behaviors

Certain behaviors can up your risk of getting HIV. For instance, alcohol or drug abuse can make it more likely that you’ll engage in unsafe behaviors like sharing needles or having sex without condoms. Also, remember that your risk of getting HIV increases with the number of sexual partners that you have.

Get Tested

Make sure both you and your partner are tested for HIV before you have sex. People with HIV who undergo treatment (antiretroviral therapy) considerably lower the risk of their passing on the infection to a sexual partner.15

Avoid Douching

Douching can eliminate beneficial bacteria present in your vagina which can protect you from infection. This may up your risk of getting HIV as well as other STIs.

Take Anti-HIV Medication

If you’re at high risk of getting HIV (for instance, if your partner is HIV positive), your doctor may advise anti-HIV medication known as pre-exposure prophylaxis. This can lower the risk of transmission.

Anti-HIV medication known as post-exposure prophylaxis is also available for people who may have been exposed to HIV – for instance, if the condom broke or you were assaulted. This medication can lower your risk of getting HIV if used within three days of exposure.16

HIV may have no cure yet. But always remember that the right treatment can be very effective in arresting the progress of the disease. It can also enable you to lead a healthy, long life. Starting treatment early as well as following healthy practices like eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking can help you live a better life.17

References   [ + ]

1, 7. HIV and Women. National Institutes of Health.
2. Stages of HIV Infection. AIDS.gov.
3. Facts About HIV/AIDS. Illinois Department of Public Health.
4, 10, 11, 16. Women and HIV. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
5. HIV and AIDS basics. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
6. Bersoff-Matcha, Susan J., William C. Miller, Judith A. Aberg, Charles van der Horst, H. James Hamrick, William G. Powderly, and Linda M. Mundy. “Sex differences in nevirapine rash.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 32, no. 1 (2001): 124-129.
8. Meier, Angela, J. Judy Chang, Ellen S. Chan, Richard B. Pollard, Harlyn K. Sidhu, Smita Kulkarni, Tom Fang Wen et al. “Sex differences in the Toll-like receptor–mediated response of plasmacytoid dendritic cells to HIV-1.” Nature medicine 15, no. 8 (2009): 955-959.
9. HIV prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
12. Domestic and intimate partner violence. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
13. HIV Prevention. Centers for Disease Control.
14. Sharing Needles or Works. CDC.
15, 17. HIV and AIDS. National Health Service.