The Truth About AIDS in Women

Did you know that 20 million women worldwide are living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)? According to the World Health Organization (WHO) fully half of those living with HIV/AIDS are these 20 million women.

Woman having an HIV test

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 159,271 adolescent and adult women had AIDS at the end of 2002. The extent of U.S. AIDS cases in adolescent and adult women almost quadrupled from seven percent in 1985 to 26 percent in 2002. The good news is that, despite these figures, AIDS cases in adolescent and adult women fell by 17 percent during this time and have leveled off as a result of successful antiretroviral therapies that help to prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS.

Sadly, almost ten percent of AIDS cases reported to the CDC through December 2002 occurred in women who were aged 25 or younger. While women of Hispanic or African-American descent make up less than 25 percent of the U.S. female population, they account for over 82 percent of AIDS cases in women.

How Is HIV Transmitted?

Worldwide, the primary method of HIV transmission is through heterosexual intercourse with over 90 percent of all adolescent and adult HIV infections occurring in this manner. In the U.S. heterosexual intercourse accounted for 42 percent of new HIV cases in 2002, while 21 percent of new HIV infections in women developed as a result of illegal drug use.

While HIV infection may occur in both sexes during heterosexual intercourse, the risk for women is far greater. The exposure of vaginal mucosal tissue to seminal fluids during sexual intercourse is the most likely culprit for this. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, previous to the routine screening of blood and blood products for HIV antibodies, HIV occurred in some patients as a result of receiving blood transfusions and blood products.

Other ways HIV is transmitted include:

  • Injection of illegal drugs, or sharing or using previously used needles
  • Male-to-male sexual intercourse
  • Contact with another person’s bodily fluids such as blood, semen, or vaginal secretions (Does not include sweat or saliva.)

Please note that sexual intercourse includes vaginal and anal intercourse, as well as oral sex.

What Are the Symptoms of HIV/AIDS?

While both men and women experience many of the same symptoms, women frequently must contend with some distinctively female signs of HIV infection such as:

  • Persistent or severe vaginal infections particularly vaginal yeast infections.
  • Pap smears that indicate cervical dysplasia or other abnormal changes.
  • Pelvic infections such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID.)

Although women with HIV frequently experience these women’s health conditions, women without HIV also experience vaginal infections, abnormal Pap smears, and pelvic infections.

Other signs and symptoms that may indicate HIV infection include:

  • Genital warts
  • Genital ulcers
  • Severe mucosal herpes infections

Frequently, within a few weeks of infection, both men and women experience flu-like symptoms. Others do not experience signs or symptoms of HIV or AIDS until several years later. This makes HIV testing imperative for those with current or previous high-risk behaviors. Other symptoms often experienced as HIV/AIDS progresses include:

  • Swollen lymph glands in the neck, underarm area, or groin
  • Frequent fevers that include night sweats
  • Rapid weight loss without dieting
  • Constant fatigue
  • Decreased appetite and diarrhea
  • White spots or abnormal blemishes in the mouth

Remember, the only way you can know whether or not you have HIV/AIDS is to get tested.

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What Are High-Risk Behaviors?

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

  • Current use or history of illegal drug use utilizing hypodermic syringes
  • A history of having sex for drugs or money
  • Having unprotected sex with a man who has had sex with another man
  • Having unprotected sex with someone who currently or previously injected street drugs
  • A history of multiple sex partners, or having a partner whose history includes multiple sexual partners
  • Having unprotected sex with someone who has any of these risk factors

Your risk for HIV increases if you have a previous or current diagnosis of hepatitis, tuberculosis (TB), or STDs, or if you received a blood transfusion or clotting factor between 1978 and 1985 when blood was not routinely screened for HIV antibodies.

You don’t get HIV/AIDS by kissing, using the same utensils, hugging, through sweat or saliva, or the normal interactions of everyday life. While not a single case of HIV is traceable exclusively to woman-to-woman sexual activity, researchers cannot say with certainty that woman-to-woman sex is not a risk factor for HIV infection.

How Can I Protect Myself From HIV/AIDS Infection?

Protection against HIV/AIDS is virtually certain for anyone who remains sexually abstinent and never engages in the use of illegal drugs. That’s probably not going to happen for most so the consistent and correct use of condoms and/or dental dams is imperative for those who are not in long-term monogamous relationships. Of course, while condoms and dental dams may offer your best protection against HIV/AIDS, you should be aware that condoms or dental dams are not foolproof. Condoms occasionally break and are never a guarantee of protection against HIV/AIDS, STDs, or pregnancy.

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

How Do I Get Tested for HIV?

A simple blood test that checks for HIV-antibody is all that is required to determine whether you are infected. This test detects the presence of antibodies produced by the body in an attempt to fight HIV.

If you believe HIV exposure has occurred, talk to your healthcare provider about HIV testing. While the average length of time from exposure to the presence of detectable HIV antibodies is 20 days it can take as long as 6-12 months in some cases before antibodies are present. Your healthcare provider may recommend testing at one month, three months, six months, and one year after exposure.

In addition to your own physician, your local health department, STD clinic, or family planning clinic can help you get tested. To learn more about HIV testing and find a testing clinic in your area visit the CDC’s National HIV Testing Resources site at or call the CDC National AIDS Hotline 24-hours a day, 365 days a year at:

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

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