When you think of HIV, you probably think of some scary virus that your mom warned you about when you were younger. And, while HIV is indeed a virus that infects people of all ages and demographics throughout the world, it's not as scary as you may think. That said, it's important to understand how this virus works and how it specifically affects women to keep both yourself and those you love safe and healthy. If you're feeling overwhelmed with where to start, don't worry—this article will give you the need-to-know basics and how to best protect yourself from contracting and spreading HIV.
What is HIV?
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the cells in the body that work to fight infections. This virus is spread primarily through certain body fluids through sex, sharing needles and other actions that directly involve the opportunity of being in contact with someone else's body fluids. When someone contracts HIV, the virus begins to attack their T cells, or CD4 cells, and reduces the body's ability to shield against disease. The weaker the immune system becomes, the more likely someone is to contract other viruses, infections and diseases.
The primary ways that HIV is spread include:
- Not using a condom when having sexual intercourse with someone who has HIV
- Unprotected anal sex
- Having several sex partners
- Unprotected oral sex
- Being born to a mother who has HIV
- Sharing illicit drug paraphernalia like needles, rinse water and syringes
- Being in contact with the body fluids of a person who has HIV, such as through broken skin or wounds
And, to debunk a few common myths as to how HIV is spread, here are the ways that this virus cannot be contracted:
- Sweat, saliva and tears
- Dry kissing
- Living with someone who has HIV
- Shaking hands
- Sharing silverware, glassware or dishware
Women and HIV
According to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, women may be at a greater risk of contracting HIV than men. This is because of a woman's delicate vaginal tissue, which can easily tear during sex and allow the virus to enter the body. Tearing of the vaginal tissue is especially common among girls ages 18 and younger. The vagina also has a much larger area that's able to be exposed to the virus compared to men, leaving women more susceptible to being infected.
Here are a few statistics related to women and HIV to give you a better idea of the increased risk women have compared to men:
- In 2018, 19% of all new HIV cases in the United States were among women.
- 86% of the new HIV diagnoses among women were a result of heterosexual contact.
- 57% of new HIV diagnoses among women were contracted by African American women, while 21% were attributed to white women.
- 27% of new HIV diagnoses were found among women ages 25 to 34, and 24% were found among women ages 35 to 44.
- One out of nine women doesn't know they have HIV.
Reproductive Health Issues and HIV
In addition to the delicate vaginal tissue and increased risk of vaginal tearing when having intercourse, there are other gynecological-related issues that can increase a woman's likelihood of contracting HIV. These issues include:
- Existing sexually transmitted diseases: Women who have existing sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, herpes or gonorrhea are at a higher risk of being infected with HIV. This is due to a few factors. Firstly, the behaviors that resulted in an STD, such as unprotected sex, put individuals at risk of also contracting HIV. Also, some STDs like herpes can cause open sores, and having intercourse with someone who has HIV while having open sores greatly increases the risk of contracting HIV. Taking Antiviral Medication is the best way to prevent sores from developing during an outbreak.
- Bacterial vaginosis: Bacterial vaginosis is a condition women can have that results in a disruption of the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina. This condition can put women at a higher risk of contracting HIV due to the alterations in the vaginal pH levels, which leave women more susceptible to another person's bodily fluids during intercourse. Women who have bacterial vaginosis and HIV are also more likely to pass HIV on to their partner. Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include changes in vaginal discharge and the development of a fishy smell.
- Untreated chlamydia: Chlamydia is a very common STD that affects both women and men. Left untreated, this STD can cause several conditions in women, including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), infertility and other damage to the reproductive system. Untreated chlamydia can also increase a woman's chance of contracting HIV if they are exposed to the virus.
How Women Can Reduce Their Risk of Contracting or Spreading HIV
There are several things you can do to lower your risk of contracting HIV (and to keep your mind at ease). And, if you're currently living with HIV, there are also steps you can take to reduce the risk of spreading this virus. Taking the initiative to protect yourself and others from the spread of this virus is an important component of taking charge of your health and wellness as a woman.
Here are a few ways to prevent the spread and contraction of HIV:
- Use condoms: Using condoms is one of if not the most effective way to eliminate the spread and contraction of HIV. Condoms protect women from having their vaginal area come into contact with another person's body fluids and therefore reduce the risk of spreading or being exposed to the virus.
- Avoid douching: Douching can alter or remove the normal bacteria in a woman's vagina. This bacteria is important to protect against infection, so avoiding douching helps keep your vaginal bacteria in the best condition possible.
- Get tested regularly: If you have more than one sexual partner, be sure to get tested for STDs and HIV regularly. It's also important to ask new partners if they've been tested recently. While this is sometimes an awkward conversation to have, it's worth it and will help protect you against contracting HIV.
Women face unique challenges when it comes to the contraction and spread of HIV. But, by educating yourself and taking preventative measures, HIV isn't something you have to be afraid of.