What Is the Risk of HIV From Vaginal Sex?

Multiple vulnerabilities increase risk in men and women

Vaginal sex is one of the primary ways a person can become infected with HIV. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it accounts for about 6,300 new infections among women each year in the U.S. and about 2,800 new infections among heterosexual men.

Globally, the figures are even more dismaying. While the sexual transmission of HIV in the U.S. is highest among gay and bisexual men (representing about 26,000 of all new infections per year), heterosexuals are by far the group most affected worldwide.

This is especially true in Africa where most new infections are among heterosexuals. In these populations, vaginal sex is the predominant route of infection.

heterosexual couple's legs intertwined in bed
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Risk by Sexual Activity

When discussing HIV risk, people often try to ascertain which "type" of sex is riskier; vaginal, anal, or oral. From a purely statistical standpoint, anal sex is considered the highest risk activity with an almost 18-fold greater risk of infection compared to vaginal sex.

But this assessment is somewhat misleading, at least from an individual perspective. While vaginal sex may pose a “lower” risk comparatively, the figures neither take into account the way in which the disease is distributed between men and women nor the vulnerabilities which place some individuals at extremely high risk of infection.

Women are three to four times more likely to get HIV from men than the other way around. A young woman is more likely to get HIV from her first sexual encounter than her male partner.

There are some men who are far more likely to get HIV than others. Studies have shown, for example, that uncircumcised men are more than twice as likely to get HIV after vaginal sex than circumcised men.

Vulnerabilities vary by individual, so assessing the real risk of vaginal sex requires a better understanding of the factors that place some women and men at greater risk than others.

Risk Factors in Women

The risk of HIV from unprotected vaginal sex is higher among women for a number of reasons. From a physiological standpoint, the tissues of the vagina (epithelium) are far more susceptible to HIV than those of the penis.

HIV is able to pass through these tissues when the immune system recognizes the invading virus and send defensive cells (called macrophages and dendritic cells) to "grab and drag" them through the lining to be destroyed.

Instead, HIV turns the table and attacks the very cells (called CD4 T-cells) meant to help neutralize them. By doing so, the body helps facilitate its own infection. And, because the surface area of the vaginal epithelium is far greater than that of the male urethra, the opportunity for infection is increased, often exponentially.

Other physiological vulnerabilities include:

  • Cells beneath the surface of the cervix are especially vulnerable to HIV, particularly during adolescence, a woman's first pregnancy, or in the presence of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) like chlamydia or human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Women with a genital tract infection, whether bacterial, viral, or fungal, are at increased risk. Some studies have suggested that bacterial vaginosis is associated with an eight-fold increase in risk. This translates into a one in 100 chance of getting HIV during vaginal intercourse.
  • The duration of exposure and volume of infected fluid are also key factors in determining whether a person gets infected or not. As such, unprotected sex can increase HIV risk in a woman if the man ejaculates into her vagina.
  • Open sores or ulcers from STIs like syphilis can increase risk in both men in women. In women, however, the sores are often internalized and unnoticed.
  • Douching practices may also alter the vagina's "good" bacterial flora, although this is still under debate.

While the daily use of an HIV drug called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can dramatically decrease the risk of HIV in an uninfected partner, there is evidence that works less well in women. Research published in 2016 suggests the level of the active drug molecule in vaginal tissue isn't near as high as in rectal tissue.

None of this, of course, takes into account any of the social vulnerabilities that can place women at increased risk. These include sexual violence in relationships which not only steals a woman's chance for self-protection but can result in damage to delicate vaginal tissue.

Poverty, social norms, and gender imbalances further ensure that any dominance a man might have outside the bedroom will extend into the bedroom, as well. All of these contribute to higher rates of HIV in women.

Risk Factors in Men

The fact that men are less susceptible to HIV than women shouldn't underplay the fact that they also have vulnerabilities that can increase their personal risk of infection.

We know, for example, that an uncircumcised penis can facilitate infection due to the bacteria-rich environment beneath the foreskin. In response, the body will produce a type of dendritic cell (called Langerhans cells) to help control the bacteria.

When a man has unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, Langerhans cells can "grab and drag" the virus and present it to CD4 T-cells, inadvertently facilitating HIV infection. Sexually transmitted infections and genital tract infections can further increase the risk of HIV.

From a cultural standpoint, society’s definition of masculinity can often normalize sexual adventure in men and even encourage it. It creates a double standard that can place a man at greater risk of HIV by associating virility with multiple partners or other high-risk behaviors.

Shared Vulnerabilities

There are vulnerabilities that increase the likelihood of infection in both men and women. Drinking alcohol or taking drugs can lower inhibitions and affects a person's ability to make safe choices, such as using condoms or remaining adherent to HIV drug therapy.

Any increase in the infected partner’s viral load (the amount of virus in the blood) increases the risk to the uninfected partner.  A high viral load during acute infection (the stage immediately following exposure) is associated with an increase in HIV risk.

According to PARTNER1 and PARTNER2 studies, which ran from 2010 to 2018, having an undetectable viral load reduces the risk of passing HIV to an uninfected partner to zero, whether for anal or vaginal sex.

Per-Exposure Risk

From the perspective of per-exposure risk (the chance of getting HIV from a single sexual act), risk can vary based on gender, the viral load of the HIV-positive partner, and even the part of the world you live in.

These figures do not take into account any other factors that can increase risk, including the presence of an STI, injecting drug use, or a co-existing infection like hepatitis C.

Accidental Exposure Risk

If you believe you may have been exposed to HIV, either through a condom burst or condomless anal sex, there are medications that can greatly reduce your risk of infection, called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). PEP consists of a 28-day course of antiretroviral drugs, which must be taken completely and without interruption.

To minimize the risk of infection, PEP must be started as soon as possible​ideally within 36 hours of exposure.

A Word From Verywell

Assessing your personal risk for HIV should never be a numbers game. Whether the odds are one in 10 or one in 100,000, it’s important to remember that you can get HIV after just one exposure.

In addition to PrEP, you should ensure that your partner is on antiretroviral therapy if he or she has HIV. Doing so may entirely erase the risk of transmission. And don't forget the tried-and-true condom, which is associated with a decrease in risk if used correctly and consistently.

By formulating a holistic approach to prevention, you can continue to enjoy a healthy sex life while protecting yourself or a loved one from the risk of HIV.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How easily is HIV transmitted?

    The risk of getting HIV can depend on the type of exposure and behavior. HIV risk is higher with anal intercourse than it is with vaginal intercourse, but vaginal sex is still one of the main ways that HIV is transmitted. Factors that can decrease your risk include using condoms and taking antiretroviral treatment.

  • What age group has the highest risk of HIV infection?

    In 2019, the number of new HIV infections was highest for people ages 25 to 29. HIV diagnoses increased for people ages 13 to 24 years, 35 to 44 years, and 45 to 54 years.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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