Correct information is the key to understanding and preventing HIV and AIDS. Myths can be harmful. Getting the facts about HIV and AIDS can lead to better health and better living with HIV.
HIV and AIDS are not problems that exist only in Africa or in other parts of the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1.2 million Americans 13 years and older are living with HIV.1
One in four people living with AIDS in the United States in 2014 was a woman. An estimated 128,778 women have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic in 1981.2
HIV is the virus that leads to AIDS. You have AIDS if your CD4 count drops below 200 or when you have certain infections or cancers. You can have HIV for years without having AIDS. Being infected with HIV does not mean you have developed AIDS.
Also, people with HIV who start treatment early in their infection, stay on treatment, and have an undetectable viral load can stay healthy and prevent the disease from progressing to AIDS.
There is no cure for HIV at this time. But with today's medicine, women can reduce their viral load (amount of HIV in the blood) to the point that it is undetectable. This means that your viral load is fewer than 40 to 75 copies in a sample of your blood.
An undetectable viral load does not mean that you no longer have HIV. It is still possible to pass HIV to others, although the risk is much lower.4 Having an undetectable viral load also helps prevent the progression to AIDS or getting other infections.
Research is being done that may lead to new treatments and new ways of preventing HIV infection. In the meantime, women with HIV are living full lives, including working, having children, and participating fully in their communities.
Right now we do not have a vaccine to prevent HIV. Vaccines are the best way to prevent diseases you can get from other people, like the measles, mumps, or polio. Researchers have been working for more than 20 years to develop a safe and effective vaccine against HIV.
HIV is a complicated virus that changes over time. This makes vaccine research difficult, and it takes a long time to do the research. Researchers are closer to developing a vaccine to prevent HIV and a vaccine to treat HIV and AIDS.5
Even if you're feeling great and have no symptoms, HIV is hurting your immune system. To protect your immune system, most experts recommend starting HIV medicines (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) as soon as you are diagnosed with HIV. Because these drugs reduce your "viral load," or the amount of HIV in your blood, they also reduce your chances of passing HIV to others.
It can take years for you to see symptoms of HIV. This is called the latency period. The only way to fully protect yourself from sexually transmitted HIV is to not have sex of any kind. Using a condom correctly every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex can reduce the risk of passing HIV by 80%.6 Male latex condoms offer the best protection against HIV, but female condoms are also approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help lower your risk for HIV infection.
Use a condom every time you have sex for two reasons. First, your partner might be infected but not know it. Second, you cannot control your partner's risky behavior. You can know only your HIV status and control only your own risk-taking.
If you and your partner have HIV, you still need to practice safer sex. Use a condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Condoms can protect you from other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Also, since there are different strains (types) of HIV, you can be infected a second time with a different type than what you already have. Some forms of HIV are also more virulent, meaning they progress to AIDS faster. You could become infected with a drug-resistant strain of HIV. This can make it very hard for treatment to work.
It is much harder for men to get HIV from women, but it does happen. HIV can enter a man's body at the opening of the tip of the penis and through cuts or sores on the shaft that may not be visible.
Plus, if a partner has an untreated sexually transmitted infection (STI) like genital herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia, the risk is even higher. These infections can bring more CD4 cells to the area of infection or cause breaks in the skin. These STIs also raise your risk for passing HIV to others.
Learn how women get HIV from vaginal sex.
A woman who knows about her HIV infection early in pregnancy and gets antiretroviral (ARV) medicine can lower the risk of passing HIV to her baby to less than 1%.7 Without treatment, the risk of a mother with HIV passing it to her baby is about 25% (in the United States).
If you are pregnant, get tested for HIV. Also, do not breastfeed your baby until you and your doctor are certain you don't have HIV.
It is rare for women who have only ever had sex with women to get or pass HIV. But HIV can be passed through vaginal fluids and menstrual blood.
Avoid sex if you (or your partner) have HIV and either a yeast infection or your period. Also, do not share sex toys, because microscopic particles in the fluids on sex toys can pass HIV. You can also get HIV from drugs and shared needles or syringes.
Any woman who has unprotected sex or shares needles or syringes with someone who is HIV-positive or whose HIV status is unknown is at risk for HIV.
HIV is not just a disease of gay men. In fact, worldwide, most people living with HIV are straight (heterosexual), and more than half of people living with HIV are women.8 In the United States, women make up about one in four people living with HIV.2
Most women who are HIV-positive got HIV from unprotected sex with an HIV-positive male. Learn more about women and HIV risk.
Sharing needles is the second most common way that HIV is spread to women in the United States (sex is the most common way). Any woman who shares needles with someone who is HIV-positive or whose HIV status is unknown is at risk for HIV. Learn more about HIV risk and sharing needles.
It is also possible to get HIV from tattoo and piercing tools that are not sterilized correctly between clients. Tools that cut the skin should be used once and then thrown away or sterilized between uses.
Before you get a tattoo or have your body pierced, ask the right questions. Find out what steps the staff takes to prevent HIV and other infections, like hepatitis B and hepatitis C. You also can call your local health department to ask how tattoo shops should sterilize their tools. A new, sterilized needle should be used for each person.
Many, but not all, states regulate and issue permits for tattoo parlors. Before getting a tattoo, learn what regulations your tattoo parlor must follow and whether it has passed a health inspection.
Even if mosquitoes could carry the HIV virus, they do not inject blood into your skin. No transmission of this type has ever been reported around the world. Also, you cannot get HIV from shaking hands, using the toilet, or coming into contact with someone's sweat or tears from their eyes. The only bodily fluids that are known to transmit HIV are semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids, breastmilk, and blood (including menstrual blood).
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Page last updated: February 23, 2017.
Content last reviewed: March 16, 2016.