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HIV and Women

HIV and Women

(Last updated 4/30/2014; last reviewed 4/30/2014)

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Key Points

  • At the end of 2010, one in four people living with HIV in the United States was a woman. The most common way that women get HIV is through sex with an HIV-infected male partner (also called sexual transmission). 
  • Several factors increase the risk of HIV infection in women. For example, during unprotected vaginal sex, HIV passes more easily from a man to a woman than from a woman to a man. (Unprotected sex is sex without a condom). A women’s risk of HIV can also increase because of her partner’s high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex with other partners or injection drug use.
  • Treatment with HIV medicines (also called antiretroviral therapy) is recommended for everyone infected with HIV. In general, recommendations on the use of HIV medicines are the same for men and women.
  • Women with HIV take HIV medicines during pregnancy and childbirth to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and to protect their own health. 

Does HIV affect women?

Yes. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at the end of 2010, one in four people living with HIV in the United States was a woman. 

Here are more facts about HIV among women from CDC:
  • Of the total number of new HIV infections in women in 2011, 64% occurred in African-American women, 17% in white women, and 15% in Hispanic/Latino women. 
  • Most new HIV infections in women in 2011 were diagnosed in women 25 to 44 years old.
  • The most common way that women get HIV is through sex with an HIV-infected male partner (also called sexual transmission).  

 

Even though HIV testing is recommended for everyone 13 to 64 years old, 15% of women in the United States who have HIV don’t know that they are HIV-infected. (HIV testing is also recommended for anyone at increased risk for HIV infection regardless of age.)  

What factors put women at risk for HIV?

HIV is spread through the blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk of a person infected with HIV. The spread of HIV from person to person is called HIV transmission.  

The main risk factors for HIV transmission are the same for women as for men:
  • Having unprotected sex (sex without a condom) with a person infected with HIV
  • Sharing drug injection equipment (such as needles and syringes) with a person who has HIV

 

Several factors increase the risk of HIV infection in women. For example, during unprotected vaginal sex, HIV passes more easily from a man to a woman than from a woman to a man. Some age-related factors, such as an immature genital tract in adolescent girls or atrophy (shrinking) of the vagina in older women, may make it easier for HIV to infect a woman than a man. A woman’s risk of HIV can also increase because of her partner’s high-risk behaviors, such as unprotected sex with other partners or injection drug use.

Are there issues that can affect HIV treatment in women?

Treatment with HIV medicines (also called antiretroviral therapy or ART) helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. ART is recommended for everyone infected with HIV. In general, recommendations on the use of HIV medicines are the same for men and women. 

Some side effects from HIV medicines may be more frequent or more severe in women than in men. For example, the risk of liver-related side effects due to nevirapine (brand name: Viramune) is greater for women than for men. 

Birth control and pregnancy are also examples of issues that affect the use of HIV medicines in women.

Birth control 
Some HIV medicines may reduce the effectiveness of birth control pills, in which case, a woman may have to use an additional or different form of birth control.

Pregnancy
Women with HIV take HIV medicines during pregnancy and childbirth to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and to protect their health. 

The following factors affect the use of HIV medicines during pregnancy:
  • Changes during pregnancy that can affect how the body processes HIV medicines. Because of these changes, the dose of an HIV medicine may change during pregnancy.
  • The increased risk of certain side effects from some HIV medicines, such as nevirapine. 
  • The potential risk of birth defects with use of some HIV medicines. No HIV medicines have been clearly linked to birth defects. There is some concern that taking efavirenz (brand name: Sustiva) in the first weeks of pregnancy may increase the risk of birth defects, but this is not certain. Women with HIV who take HIV medicines during pregnancy are encouraged to enroll in the Antiretroviral Pregnancy Registry. The registry is a project established to monitor prenatal exposures to HIV medicines and to detect any potential increase in the risk of related birth defects. Pregnant women exposed to HIV medicines voluntarily enroll in the Registry through their health care providers.

 

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