About 1 in every 4 adults living with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, in the U.S. is a woman, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Authors of a January 2011 article in "Clinical Infectious Diseases" note that many women do not receive HIV care as soon as they should -- in part because early HIV symptoms may be subtle. Recognizing symptoms and avoiding delays in receiving HIV treatment can help prevent spread of the virus to others and greatly improve prognosis.
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Fever, Fatigue and Swollen Glands
In the first few days to weeks after being infected with HIV, 50 to 80 percent of people experience flu-like symptoms, notes CDC. Fever, chills, night sweats, fatigue and swollen glands, or lymph nodes, are among the most common early HIV symptoms. Some people may also notice a sore throat, mouth ulcers, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Because other conditions -- like the flu, mononucleosis, strep throat, food poisoning and even the common cold -- can cause similar symptoms, early HIV symptoms are often overlooked.
Unlike other conditions that can cause flu-like symptoms, early HIV infection can also cause a rash. A review article published in January 2011 in "Journal of the International AIDS Society" explains that rashes are common in both early and late HIV. Because the skin is the body's largest organ, it is particularly vulnerable to the effects of HIV, the authors note. Rashes due to early HIV infection tend to be red and itchy. They may occur anywhere but frequently appear on the arms or torso.
Headache is another common symptom of early HIV infection. In addition to headache, some people may notice a stiff neck and sensitivity to light. These symptoms could indicate inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord -- or meningitis -- due to HIV. This manifestation occurs much less frequently than other early HIV symptoms, however. According to an August 1999 article in the journal "American Family Physician," up to 70 percent of people with early HIV experience headache, while only 24 percent are diagnosed with meningitis.
In rare cases, vaginal sores or ulcers may indicate early HIV in women. Based on statistics from 2010, CDC estimates that nearly 85 percent of women contract HIV during unprotected sexual encounters with men. Exposure to other sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, increases the risk of HIV and may also increase the odds of a genital ulcer forming during early HIV infection. The August 1999 article in "American Family Physician" notes that 5 to 15 percent of people with early HIV develop genital ulcers.
When to See a Doctor
If you have risk factors for HIV -- including a history of unprotected sex or injection drug use -- be sure to get tested for HIV. Keep in mind that early HIV symptoms may be subtle and are frequently undiagnosed. Getting early HIV care can help protect you from HIV-related complications and also prevent spread of the virus to loved ones.