For Women: Facts on AIDS and HIV Infection
On this page:
Basics About AIDS
HIV Is Not Spread By
Persons at High Risk
Signs And Symptoms
HIV in U.S. Women
HIV Counseling and Testing
Basics About AIDS
The term “AIDS” stand for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is an illness caused by a virus known as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). HIV destroys certain cells in the blood that help fight infections. These cells are part of the immune system. Because the virus can weaken the immune system, people with HIV can become ill with other serious infections and some types of cancer referred to as opportunistic diseases. HIV-infected persons are considered to have AIDS when these opportunistic diseases occur or when their blood levels of immune cells drop below a certain point.
HIV is spread when body fluids (such as vaginal secretions, semen, or blood) from an infected person enter the body of an uninfected person. This most often happens during sexual intercourse and when people share needles to inject drugs. Also, if women who are infected with HIV become pregnant, they can pass the virus to their children before or during birth or through breast milk. Someone who is infected with HIV may not show any symptoms for years, but still can spread the virus to others.
HIV Is Not Spread By
- Food or drink
- Donating blood
- Coughing or sneezing
- Shared work or school space
- Hugging or touching
- Using public restrooms
- Insects or animals
- Toilet seats
- Shaking hands
- Tears, saliva, sweat, or urine
Persons at High Risk
- People who have unprotected anal intercourse (not using a latex condom)
- People who share drug needles or works
- Women who are sexual partners of men who either share drug needles or have sex with men
- People who have multiple sexual partners are at increased risk for HIV because of the greater chance of having sex with a person who is infected with HIV
- Children born to women infected with HIV
Signs and Symptoms
Common signs and symptoms for both men and women:
- Fever lasting for at least one month
- Unexplained weight loss
- Diarrhea lasting for at least one month
- Drenching (severe) night sweats
- Swollen glands in the neck, armpit, or pelvic area (that are not tender when touched) lasting for at least one month
- Creamy white patches in the mouth or on the tongue caused by a fungal infection
Women may also have:
- Vaginal yeast infections that don’t go away
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Genital warts
- Ovarian or cervical disease
- Abnormal Pap smears
However, these signs, symptoms, and diseases alone do not necessarily mean that a woman is infected with HIV or has AIDS. Women who experience these symptoms are encouraged to seek medical attention.
HIV in U.S. Women
- In 2010, there were 10,168 adult and adolescent female HIV cases reported accounting for 21% of all HIV cases reported that year.
- About 14% of the HIV cases reported in women were due to sharing contaminated drug needles.
- About 86% of the HIV cases reported in women were due to sexual contact with men.
- Through 2009, there were 188,668 adult and adolescent females living with HIV:
- 74% due to sexual contact with men; and,
- 26% due to injection drug use.
- Many people with HIV have no symptoms and feel well.
- If you do not engage in any of the high risk behaviors, it is very unlikely that you are infected with HIV.
- If you are at risk, you can take a HIV test to see if you are infected. The HIV test measures antibody to HIV. When a person becomes infected with the virus, his/her body makes antibody against the virus. If you are infected with HIV, it is likely that you will have antibody against HIV.
Some women have sex against their will through rape or abusive partners who demand unsafe sex. If you have been sexually assaulted, it is advisable to have a medical examination as soon as possible by a physician or public health clinic. For further information, call Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
HIV Counseling and Testing
If you have shared drug needles, or have had sexual contact with men who either have shared drug needles or have had sex with other men, you should consider having a blood test to determine if you are infected with HIV.
- You can be counseled and tested at HIV Counseling and Testing Sites.
- You can be tested by your private doctor. Be sure that you are also counseled about your risk of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.
If you are of childbearing age and have shared drug needles or have had sexual contact with men who either share drug needles or have sex with men, consider the risk to your baby before becoming pregnant. If you engage in these behaviors, you should talk to your doctor about being tested for HIV before planning a pregnancy because you could pass HIV to your unborn child. If you are already pregnant, discuss testing with your doctor. The risk that an untreated HIV infected pregnant woman will pass HIV to her newborn child is about 15% to 25%. With medications, the chance of passing HIV to her newborn can be reduced down to 1% to 2%.
There is no vaccine or cure for HIV infection or AIDS, but there are treatments that can help people stay healthy and live longer. Effective treatments are available for many of the opportunistic infections and cancers. Combination therapies are now available to help keep one’s immune system healthier longer. Treatments are also available for HIV infected pregnant women to reduce the chance of passing HIV to their newborns. The earlier on gets tested and treated, the more effective the treatment becomes. Lower viral loads due to treatment have been shown to reduce transmission risk.
You are not at risk if you are: 1) not sexually active; 2) not sharing needles; or 3) having sex with one person who is not infected with HIV or is not a risk for becoming infected. If you are at risk, you can reduce your risk for HIV infection by taking the following precautions:
- Reduce your number of sex partners. The more people you have sex with the greater your chances are of having sex with someone who is infected.
- Prevent blood, semen, or other body fluids from your sex partner to enter your body through your mouth, vagina, anus, or open cuts or sores.
- Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV. They should always be used for oral, vaginal, and anal sex. Other birth control methods do not prevent HIV transmission. Polyurethane condoms are now available for those allergic to latex.
- For oral sex on a woman (or on a man’s or woman’s anus) use a new latex barrier each time. This can be a dental dam or a latex condom cut and rolled out flat. For oral sex on a man, use a latex condom.
- The female condom, a polyurethane pouch that is inserted into the vagina, may offer another option instead of the male worn condom.
- Remember that many people who have HIV may not know it and can pass the virus on to unsuspecting sexual partners.
- Be mindful about your use of alcohol and drugs, they can keep you from making responsible choices about sex.
- Talk about AIDS, sex, and drugs with your sexual partner. It’s okay to say “no” to sex, drugs, or alcohol.
- Do not use injectable drugs. If you do use drugs, do not share needles, cookers, or cotton
to inject drugs into your body. Also, do not share needles for tattooing or piercing.
- In Minnesota to help prevent the sharing of needles, persons are allowed to buy up to 10 new syringes/needles without a prescription at certain pharmacies.
- All pregnant women should have an HIV test as a routine part of prenatal care.
- If infected with HIV, get into treatment as lower viral loads have shown to reduce the risk of transmission.
- A prescription antiviral drug is now available for high risk persons to take daily (pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP) to help reduce their risk of infection.
HIV is spread through sexual contact, through blood-to-blood contact, and from an infected mother to her unborn child. As women learn more about the risk of HIV to themselves and their families, they can also learn what they can do to minimize the possibility of getting HIV infection.
- HIV Infection is a preventable disease
- HIV is not spread by casual contact
- People are most often infected by unprotected sexual contact or by sharing needles
Information and referral services:
Minnesota AIDS Project AIDSLine:
Metro Area: (612) 373-AIDS, (612) 373-2465 TTY
Statewide: 1-800-248-AIDS, 1-888-820-2437 TTY
HIV Counseling and Testing Sites:
Provide free, confidential counseling and HIV antibody testing. Clinic staff are trained to answer questions about AIDS and to provide medical and mental health referrals to knowledgeable and concerned providers.
- Crown Medical Center
Minneapolis (612) 871-4354
- Face to Face Health and Counseling Service, Inc.
St. Paul (651) 772-5555
- Hennepin County Public Health Clinic
Red Door Services
Minneapolis (612) 543-5555
- Clinic 555, St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health
St. Paul (651) 266-1255
- North Memorial Broadway Family Medicine
Minneapolis (612) 302-8200
- West Side Community Health Services
St. Paul (651) 222-1816
There are over 30 other HIV testing sites throughout Minnesota. Contact the Minnesota AIDS Project - AIDSLine for a location near you.
Minnesota Family Planning and STD Hotline:
(651) 645-9360 (Metro area)
Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Metro Area: (651) 209-9993
Statewide: (800) 964-8847
If you require this document in another format, such as large print, Braille, or cassette tape, call (651) 201-5414.
Adapted from: AIDS, What Women Should Know, Hennepin County Community Health Department and Hennepin County Public Affairs Department
Content Notice: This site contains HIV or STD prevention messages that may not be appropriate for all audiences. Since HIV and other STDs are spread primarily through sexual practices or by sharing needles, prevention messages and programs may address these topics. If you are not seeking such information or may be offended by such materials, please exit this web site.