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HIV and Women

HIV and Women

(Last updated 8/14/2015; last reviewed 8/14/2015)

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Key Points

  • Approximately one in four people living with HIV in the United States are women.
  • The most common way that women get HIV is through sex with an HIV-infected male partner (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 woman’s risk of HIV can also increase because of her partner’s high-risk behaviors, such as injection drug use or having unprotected sex with other men.
  • Treatment with HIV medicines (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) 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) approximately one in four people living with HIV in the United States are women. 

Here are more facts about HIV among women from CDC:
  • Of the total number of new HIV infections in women in 2013, 63% occurred in African-American women, 17% in white women, and 15% in Hispanic/Latino women. 
  • The most common way that women get HIV is through sex with an HIV-infected male partner (called sexual transmission).
  • Most women who have HIV know that they are infected. But only 45% of women living with HIV are getting the care they need.  

Treatment with HIV medicines (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. 

What factors put women at risk for HIV?

HIV is spread through the blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal 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 injection drug use or having unprotected sex with other men.


Is HIV treatment the same for men and women?

In general, recommendations on the use of HIV medicines are the same for men and women. However, there are some issues unique to women that can affect their HIV treatment. These issues include the increased risk of side effects with some HIV medicines, birth control, and pregnancy.

Side effects
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
Some HIV medicines may reduce the effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives, for example birth control pills, patches, rings, or implants. Women taking these HIV medicines 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 the use of some HIV medicines. No HIV medicines have been clearly linked to birth defects, but some medicines have raised concerns. Pregnant women and their health care providers carefully consider the benefits and the risks of specific HIV medicines when choosing an HIV regimen to use during pregnancy.
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