Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;65(10):2119-2120

What are HIV and AIDS?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that destroys the immune system. The virus affects certain white blood cells, called T4 helper cells, which help the body fight disease. Over many years, the white blood cells are destroyed. The body then has a weak defense against infections such as lung, mouth, and eye infections. Some kinds of cancer, such as lymphoma or cervical cancer, may also occur. When infections and other problems occur, the person is said to have AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

How do women become infected with HIV?

HIV is spread through contact with the blood or semen of a person infected with HIV. This can happen during unsafe sex (when a latex condom is not properly used). 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.

The only sure way to keep from getting HIV is to not have sex at all or to have sex only with a partner who does not have HIV. Avoiding contact with human blood and not sharing needles are other important steps in avoiding HIV infection.

Is HIV infection different in women and men?

HIV infection is somewhat the same in men and women. For a long time after becoming infected, the person seems healthy. Over many years, the person's 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 and their treatments are the same in women and men.

The difference between men and women is that HIV-infected women often have extra problems such as repeated vaginal yeast infections, especially as the immune system becomes weaker. More serious infections, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (an infection of a woman's internal reproductive organs), can be harder to treat because the woman's body can't help much to fight off infections. Diseases of the cervix, such as precancer (dysplasia) and cancer, move faster. They can be harder to treat if a woman has HIV.

What precautions can be taken to avoid getting HIV during sex?

A male latex condom that is used properly is one way to help prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as herpes, gonorrhea, genital warts, and syphilis. It also helps prevent a woman from giving HIV infection to her sexual partner.

The new female condom (brand name: Reality) may help block the spread of HIV. This product is new, and it's too early to know for sure how effective it is in preventing the spread of HIV. Female condoms may not be as effective as male latex condoms, but they should be used if the man refuses to use a male latex condom. Other forms of birth control (such as spermicide, diaphragm, cervical cap, sponge, intrauterine device, hormone shots, implants, and pills) do not protect a woman from getting HIV infection. They only protect her from getting pregnant.

IUDs (intrauterine devices) are not recommended for women with HIV infection because they may increase menstrual bleeding. Birth control pills cause an increase in the amount of the virus in a woman's vagina.

What should I do if I think I may be infected?

If you think you may be infected with HIV, call your doctor right away. Even though there is no cure for the disease, early diagnosis and treatment with medicines can slow the disease. Your doctor will be able to give you more advice about how to take care of yourself if tests show that you have HIV.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • National HIV and AIDS Hotline

    Telephone: 1-800-342-2437

    (Spanish: 800-344-7432)


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • National Prevention Information Network

    Telephone: 1-800-458-5231 (TYY: 800-243-7012)


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