The truth about AIDS in women

Did you know that 20 million women worldwide are infected with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of those living with HIV/AIDS are these 20 million women.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that by the end of 2002, 159,271 adolescents and adult women were living with HIV. The incidence of AIDS among American adolescents and adult women nearly quadrupled, from 7% in 1985 to 26% in 2002. Despite these numbers, AIDS cases among adolescents and adult women fell by 17% over the period and have leveled off as successful antiretroviral therapy helps prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS, sources said.

Sadly, as of December 2002, almost 10% of AIDS cases reported to the CDC occurred in women 25 or younger. While Hispanic or African American women make up less than 25 percent of the U.S. female population, they account for more than 82 percent of HIV cases in women.

How does HIV spread?

Worldwide, the primary mode of HIV transmission is through heterosexual intercourse, which occurs in more than 90% of HIV infections in adolescents and adults. In the United States, heterosexual intercourse accounted for 42% of new HIV cases in 2002, and 21% of new HIV infections in women were caused by illicit drug use.

While both men and women can contract HIV during heterosexual intercourse, women are at a much greater risk. Exposure of vaginal mucosal tissue to semen during intercourse is the most likely culprit. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before routine screening of blood and blood products for HIV antibodies, some patients became infected with HIV from blood transfusions and blood products.

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Other ways HIV is spread include:

  • injecting illegal drugs, or sharing or using previously used needles
  • Contact with another person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, semen, or vaginal secretions (excluding sweat or saliva.)

Note that sexual intercourse includes vaginal and anal sex, as well as oral sex. Although HIV infection is high in heterosexual intercourse, it is also high in male-to-male intercourse.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

While both men and women share many of the same symptoms, women often have to deal with some female-specific signs of HIV infection, such as:

  • Persistent or severe vaginal infections, especially vaginal yeast infections.
  • menstrual cycle problems
  • Pelvic infections, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID.)

Typically, both men and women experience flu-like symptoms within a few weeks of infection. Others don’t show signs or symptoms of HIV or AIDS until years later. This makes HIV testing imperative for those with current or previous high-risk behaviors.

Other symptoms that often appear as HIV/AIDS progresses include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, or groin
  • frequent fever, including night sweats
  • Lose weight fast without dieting
  • persistent fatigue
  • loss of appetite and diarrhea
  • White spots or unusual blemishes in the mouth

Remember, the only way you will know if you have HIV/AIDS is to get tested.

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What is high-risk behavior?

Because we know that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is spread through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, and vaginal secretions, it is easy to understand that high-risk behaviors associated with HIV/AIDS include:

  • Current use or history of illicit drug use using hypodermic syringes
  • have a history of having sex for drugs or money
  • Unprotected sex with a man who has sex with another man
  • Unprotected sex with someone who is currently or previously injecting street drugs
  • A history of multiple sexual partners, or a history of having a partner that includes multiple sexual partners
  • having unprotected sex with someone with any of these risk factors

Your risk of contracting HIV increases if you have a previous or current diagnosis of hepatitis, tuberculosis (TB), or STD, or if you received blood transfusions or clotting factors between 1978 and 1985 when you were not routinely screened for HIV antibodies.

Unlike the high rate of male-to-male HIV transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported one case of female-to-female HIV transmission in 2012. You cannot get HIV/AIDS through kissing, using the same utensils, hugging, sweating or saliva, or normal interactions in everyday life.

How can I protect myself from HIV/AIDS?

HIV/AIDS prevention is almost certain for anyone who maintains sexual abstinence and never uses illegal drugs. For most people, this probably won’t happen, so for those not in a long-term monogamous relationship, consistent and correct use of condoms and/or dental dams is essential. Of course, while condoms and dental dams can provide you with the best protection against HIV/AIDS, you should know that condoms or dental dams are not foolproof. Condoms occasionally rupture and are never guaranteed to prevent HIV/AIDS, STDs, or pregnancy.

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Never try to “double protect” yourself by using both male and female condoms at the same time. This can damage one or both condoms, failing to protect either partner from HIV or another sexually transmitted disease (STD).

How do I get tested for HIV?

A simple blood test can check for HIV antibodies to find out if you are infected. This test detects the presence of antibodies produced by the body to fight HIV.

If you think HIV exposure has occurred, discuss HIV testing with your healthcare provider. Antigen/antibody tests from a vein can detect HIV 18 to 45 days after exposure. Finger prick tests can detect HIV 18 to 90 days after exposure. Your healthcare provider may recommend testing one month, three months, six months, and one year after exposure.

In addition to your own doctor, your local health department, STD clinic, or family planning clinic can help you get tested. To learn more about HIV testing and to find a testing clinic in your area, visit CDC’s National HIV Testing Resource website at or call the CDC National HIV Helpline 24/365 Hour:

  • 1-800-342-AIDS (1-800-342-2437)
  • 1-800-AIDS-TTY (1-800-243-7889) TTY
  • 1-800-344-SIDA (1-800-344-7432) Spanish

Sources: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and World Health Organization (WHO).