Over the years, a lot has been written about the human immunodeficiency virus. But all too often, the information is universal and doesn’t address the specific changes women should expect to experience should they become infected with HIV. As we now know, an early HIV diagnosis and treatment can lead to people with HIV living normal and healthy lives. But, as women, we may not all be aware of how HIV symptoms can affect our reproductive organs and menstrual cycles and the other female-specific symptoms that are related to HIV.
“It’s interesting to know that 2 out of 3 new cases of HIV in women are due to unprotected sexual intercourse from an infected partner, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, OB-GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “By virtue of women and men having gender-specific anatomy and hormonal variations, HIV will have different symptoms related to their reproductive health.”
Women suffering from HIV may experience hormonal changes, stress and weight loss, Ross says. As a result, they may also notice irregularities in their period. “Those affected can have frequent and heavy periods or lighter and missed periods,” Ross says. “Some completely lose their period altogether. Hormonal havoc is not uncommon, making symptoms associated with premenstrual symptoms (PMS), perimenopause and menopause even worse.”
Menstrual changes aside, women with HIV are more prone to yeast and bacterial infections, Ross says. And because they develop a weakened immune system, they’re also more likely to get sexually transmitted infections, including herpes simplex virus, chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis and the human papillomavirus (HPV), Ross says. Another thing to note: Being more at risk for STIs makes women with HIV more susceptible to cervical and anal/rectal cancer.
Despite these symptoms, unless a woman has a pre-existing menstrual or ovulatory irregularity, the diagnosis of HIV/AIDS does not typically disrupt reproductive function, says Dr. David Diaz, a reproductive endocrinologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
“Because normal ovulation is not affected, a young woman may become pregnant,” Diaz says. “If she contracts an infection, there is the additional risk of transmitting the virus to her fetus. Health care professionals should caution women against having unprotected intercourse and clearly explain to their female patients that taking the birth control pill alone is not protective against the HIV virus.”
If a woman is experiencing the advanced stages of HIV, Diaz says AIDS-related immunologic deficiency can typically cause blood cell changes, fever, respiratory problems or skin manifestations.
“For this reason, regular surveillance and avoidance of high-risk behavior are cornerstones for decreasing exposure to HIV infection,” Diaz says.