HIV is scary as sh*t-which means that its symptoms are equally terrifying…right?
Not exactly. “Most people who get infected don’t even know. It’s only in hindsight they recognize the symptoms,” says Michael Horberg, M.D., director of HIV/AIDS for Kaiser Permanente.
That’s because HIV symptoms are, well, probably things you would totally brush off if you ever felt them (think: a cold).
A refresher: HIV (a.k.a. human immunodeficiency virus) is an incurable virus that attacks your body’s immune system. It can be passed on through bodily fluids like semen, blood, and breast milk; though, not through saliva.
An estimated 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the U.S.*
Left untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), which can make you even more susceptible to severe illnesses and eventually lead to death.
The only way to really know whether you have HIV is to get tested (which you should be doing at least once a year if you’re sexually active and have unprotected sex). Still, it’s helpful to be aware of these HIV symptoms in women:
1. You have a fever and chills.
A low-grade fever -99.5 to 101 F-accompanied by chills is one of the more common HIV symptoms you might notice. “Your body is trying to fight a foreign body that isn’t supposed to be there, in this case ineffectively,” says Horberg.
While raising your body temperature does actually kill some weaker viruses, like the flu, it’s not enough to wipe out HIV. The fever usually lasts for a week or two, but it can pop up for just a day. “If there’s any chance you could have been infected, get tested,” Horberg adds.
2. You’re always waking up with night sweats.
Getting damp on a muggy night without air conditioning is definitely not the same as night sweats, which result in puddles of sweat that’ll make you want to change your sheets. “The body is trying to release off toxins,” says Horberg.
Although HIV can cause night sweats, plenty of other potential culprits do as well, including menopause, mononucleosis, and cancers like lymphoma and leukemia, says Horberg. So if you’re soaking your sheets over the course of a few nights, definitely check in with your doctor.
3. You’re breaking out in a rash.
Some people who experience HIV symptoms notice a light red rash all over their bodies, including their arms, torso, and legs-although it can appear in just one or two spots.
“It’s a general redness, not discrete red bumps. If you’ve ever had a drug reaction rash, it’s similar to that,” says Horberg.
It usually lasts at least a week, and most patients say it’s not itchy; it’s a reaction to fever along with your body’s natural inflammation response as it fights off infection.
4. Your throat is so sore.
An inflammatory response to a serious viral infection can also cause your throat to become inflamed, making it hard to swallow. But, unlike strep, your doctor won’t spot patches of white, just redness and inflammation like you’d get with a cold.
“Lots of viruses effect your throat,” says Horberg; but if you’re concerned about HIV, it’s best to see a doctor about this one.
5. You feel sleepy and achy all over.
You might feel generally uncomfortable (and really fatigued) for at least a week after you’re first infected with HIV, says Horberg.
It’s an unrelenting exhaustion-even going to work or just sticking to your daily routine will be a chore. “Everything hurts. It’s hard to move, and you just can’t make yourself comfortable,” says Horberg. “Your body is fighting the HIV virus, and it’s tired.”
6. Your neck-and armpits, and groin-are swollen.
Your lymph nodes-located in your neck, armpits, and groin-manufacture infection-fighting cells, and they’re working overtime at the same time they’re under direct attack from HIV. That’s why over a third of people who’ve been exposed to the virus notice these glands appear bigger than normal, explains Horberg.
If you feel several swollen lymph nodes in different locations, it’s definitely a symptom to check with your doctor stat.
7. You have a yeast infection.
Yeast are microscopic fungi that naturally live in your mouth and vagina. When you’re first infected with HIV, however, they can grow out of control, causing a yeast infection.
“Your body’s own natural ability to fight other infections is being attacked. Your B and T cells are suppressed because they’re working on other things,” says Horberg.
That said, conditions like diabetes also commonly cause yeast infections-and some women without any underlying diseases simply get yeast infections more often than others. So check in with your doc for treatment; if you think there’s a chance you could have recently been infected with HIV, ask if you should get tested.
8. You have a canker sore.
Canker sores (a.k.a. mouth ulcers) are tender, round, whitish pits in the lining of your mouth-and they can be caused by inflammation as your body tries to fight off HIV, says Horberg.
They often cause a stinging sensation, and are more sensitive to acidic foods like lemons. It should be noted, however, that canker sores happen for a variety of different reasons too, like stress, food allergies, or hormonal changes.
9. You start losing weight unexpectedly.
In its later stages, untreated HIV causes what’s known as wasting, or loss of fat and muscle mass, because the virus causes you to lose your appetite and prevents your body from absorbing nutrients, says Horberg.
While the exact amount you’ll shed varies, it’s noticeable and often happens over a long period of time. “Often your friends and loved ones will comment that you’re wasting away,” says Horberg. “Typically, it doesn’t happen in patients who have been treated well with modern medicines.”
*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.