HIV Infection In Women
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that destroys the immune system. The main target of HIV are CD4 cells, or helper T cells, which help the body fight disease. Over many years, the CD4 cells are destroyed. The body then has a weaker defense against infections such as lung infections, mouth infections and eye infections. Some forms of cancer, such as lymphoma or cervical cancer, may also occur. When infections and other problems occur, the person is said to have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
HIV is spread through contact with blood, semen or other body fluids from a person infected with HIV. This can happen during sex. It can also happen when needles are shared with a person infected with HIV. People who inject drugs might get HIV if they share a needle with an infected person. In the past, HIV was also spread through blood transfusion. Blood donations are now tested for HIV, and HIV-infected blood is destroyed. HIV is not spread by casual contact such as hugging, kissing, holding hands, sitting on toilet seats or sharing clothing.
More than half of women who have HIV got the infection from sexual partners. A woman can be infected by contact with a man or contact with another woman. When a woman has sex with an infected man, she has a high risk of getting HIV if a condom is not used properly. Ask your doctor for instructions on proper use of condoms.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, HIV infection appeared to be confined to certain groups, including intravenous drug users, men who have sex with other men and persons with hemophilia (a blood-clotting disease that requires treatment with frequent blood transfusions). People with hemophilia got HIV from receiving blood transfusions with donated blood that contained HIV.
These days, HIV infection is much more widespread. Here is a list of people who are at high risk of HIV infection:
- Men who have sex with other men.
- Anyone who has multiple sex partners.
- Anyone who has sex with a prostitute.
- Anyone who shares needles using illegal injected drugs.
- Anyone who exchanges sex for drugs or money.
- Anyone who has a sexually transmitted disease.
- Anyone who has had or currently has a sexual partner with any of the above risk factors.
Since most people who are infected with HIV appear healthy, a blood test for the virus is necessary. People who have a positive blood test for HIV are called HIV-positive. Ask your doctor how to obtain confidential testing for HIV. Your doctor can help you understand what the test results mean.
The only 100% sure way to keep from getting the AIDS virus is to not have sex at all or to have sex only with a partner who does not have HIV infection. Avoiding contact with human blood and other body fluids and not sharing needles are also important steps in avoiding HIV infection.
HIV infection is somewhat similar in men and women. For a long time after becoming infected, the person seems healthy. Over many years, the persons immune system gradually becomes weaker until it is unable to fight off other infections. In general, the types of infections that people with HIV get, such as Pneumocystis pneumonia or Kaposis sarcoma, and their treatments are the same in women and men.
The difference between men and women is that HIV-infected women often have additional problems such as repeated vaginal yeast infections, especially as the immune system becomes weaker.
Since this article was originally published a HIV prevention strategy, called PrEP, has become available.
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