If you are a woman, you have a 1 in 139 chance of being diagnosed with HIV. Although some people think only men who have sex with other men get HIV or AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that in the U.S. almost one-fourth of all people diagnosed with HIV are women.
Here are some things all women should know about HIV.
What is HIV?
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which is the virus that causes AIDS. Having HIV is known as being HIV positive (HIV+). Being HIV+ is not the same as having AIDS.
The HIV virus attacks special cells in the immune system called T cells. T cells help protect the body from disease. When HIV damages T cells, the immune system cannot work as well and the body is susceptible to getting other diseases. HIV can turn to AIDS when the immune system is very weak.
How do women get HIV?
The most common way HIV is shared is by having sex. Any woman who has sex with anyone else could get HIV.
• Vaginal sex - Women are at higher risk of getting HIV from vaginal sex than men are. If a woman has sex with an HIV+ man, his semen can stay in her vagina for several days, which gives her longer exposure. Men are only exposed to a woman’s fluids during the sex act. In addition, the vagina has a larger surface than the penis which gives the virus more opportunity for contact.
• Anal sex – Women are at even higher risk of getting AIDS if they have unprotected anal sex than they are from unprotected vaginal sex.
• Sex with women – Although it is less likely, it is possible for a woman to be infected with HIV during sex with another woman. This may be due to vaginal or menstrual fluids coming in contact with soft tissues such as those in the mouth.
• STIs – Having an untreated sexually transmitted infection can make it easier for a woman to be infected with HIV during sex. The virus can enter the woman’s body through tiny tears in the vagina that she does not know are there.
Women can also become infected with HIV by sharing a needle with an infected person, getting a blood transfusion with infected blood (rare in the United States where blood is tested for HIV), eating food chewed by someone with HIV, using a dirty tattooing needle if it was used on someone with HIV, or by sharing an infected toothbrush or razor.
HIV prevention for women
The best prevention against HIV is to not have sex. If you are going to have sex, always use a condom unless you know that you and your partner are free from HIV. “Knowing” requires that you and your partner be tested to make sure neither of you have the virus. There is no way to look at another person and tell if he or she is infected.
Some women are not comfortable asking a partner to use a condom . Others believe that a man who says he only has sex with women could not have the disease. Some men who are bisexual will not admit that they have sex with both men and women and may not be truthful about their HIV risk.
Just because a potential partner claims to be HIV negative does not mean it is safe to have sex without a condom. The fact is most women who are infected with HIV got the virus through sex with an infected man. Your best protection against HIV is using a condom every time you have sex.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV among Women. Web. October 17, 2011.
WomensHealth.gov. HIV/AIDS. Web. October 17, 2011.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Women and HIV. Web. October 17, 2011.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Web. October 17, 2011.
Reviewed October 18, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith