Throughout the world, HIV is most often spread through sex.1 Women may be at greater risk of being infected with HIV during sexual contact than men are. This is because the fragile tissues of the vagina can tear slightly during sex and let the virus enter the body. (This is especially likely among girls under age 18.) The vagina also has a large surface area that can be exposed to the virus, thus increasing risk of infection. Similarly, anal tissues are also fragile and prone to tearing slightly during sex. Women are at higher risk of infection via anal sex than by vaginal sex with an infected man. Most women around the world and in the United States who have HIV were infected through sex with a man.
Forced sex, transactional sex, and marriage to much older men increase women's risk of infection in many places around the world. The World Health Organization has more information on gender inequality and HIV .
Having multiple sex partners can also increase the risk of exposure to the virus that causes the disease. Injection drug use is another way HIV can be acquired by women.
Signs and Symptoms
Most signs and symptoms of HIV/AIDS are the same in men and women. However, there are some that are specific to women. For example:
- Vaginal yeast infections. These infections can be more severe and difficult to treat in women with HIV infection than in other women. Yeast infections can also be chronic in women with HIV, which means that the infection is long-lasting or keeps coming back.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease. This infection of the female reproductive organs may be more frequent and severe in women with HIV infection. Additional information on pelvic inflammatory disease is available from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. HPV causes genital warts and can lead to some cancers, especially cancer of the cervix. HPV infections may be more likely to cause warts or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix in HIV-infected women than in HIV-uninfected women.
The NICHD, along with other Institutes, supports studies to determine what aspects of HIV are specific to women and the best treatments for these symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects detailed statistics on HIV in the United States. It has more information about HIV and women in the United States.
Women who have HIV can pass the infection to their children during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. For this reason, pregnant women who are HIV-infected need to take extra steps to protect their children from infection. These steps include taking anti-HIV drugs and formula-feeding their children. Using contraception to prevent unintended pregnancy is another method to prevent transmission of the virus, and it's very effective and inexpensive . Read more about preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
- Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). (2012). Global report: UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic 2012. Retrieved May 17, 2013, from http://www.unaids.org/en/media/unaids/contentassets/documents/epidemiology/2012/gr2012/20121120_UNAIDS_Global_Report_2012_with_annexes_en.pdf (PDF - 2 KB)