Throughout the world, HIV is most often spread through heterosexual contact. 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. The vagina also has a large surface area that can be exposed to the virus, thus increasing risk of infection. Most women around the world and in the United States who have HIV were infected through sex with a man.
Gender inequality can contribute to infection rates among women in many countries. Forced sex, transactional sex, and marriage to much older men increases women's risk of infection, for example. The World Health Organization has more information on gender inequality and HIV.
Multiple partners can also increase the risk of exposure to the virus that causes the disease.
Signs & 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.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. HPV causes genital warts and can lead to some cancers, especially cancer of the cervix. HPV infections may occur more frequently in HIV-infected women. They are also 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 the HIV epidemic 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. Read more about how to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.