Office of Women's Health

Facts About HIV/AIDS

Historically, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has affected more men than women. However, if new HIV infections continue at their current rate worldwide, women with HIV may soon outnumber men with HIV.

HIV infection impacts a growing number of women in Illinois each year. Nearly 7,000 women in Illinois are currently known to be living with HIV and/or AIDS. Many hundreds of other women are probably living with HIV even though they are unaware of their own infection.

HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacts African-American women in Illinois and the United States. Nationally, HIV infection is the leading cause of death for African-American women between the ages of 25 and 34. In Illinois, the number of HIV cases among African-American women continues to climb. Roughly 68 percent of Illinois women living with HIV are African American, while African Americans only make up 15 percent of the Illinois population. Caucasian women account for 16 percent of Illinois women living with HIV, while the Caucasian population represents more than 73 percent of Illinois residents. Latina women represent roughly 11 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in women, while 13 percent of the Illinois population is Latino. Roughly 4 percent of women with HIV are from Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander and other communities.

Women in their 30s are the most likely to be living with HIV/AIDS, and almost all Illinois women living with HIV are between the ages of 20 and 50.

What places Illinois women at risk for HIV/AIDS?

The majority of new HIV cases in women are the result of sexual behaviors; roughly two out of every three new infections in women are the result of unprotected sexual intercourse. The remaining new cases in Illinois are largely due to sharing needles and works while using injection drugs.

During heterosexual intercourse, women are usually more exposed to bodily fluids than their male partners. This places women at increased risk for many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV. Women, especially young women, may be more vulnerable because they may be afraid to say no to sex or to insist that their partner use a condom.

Injection drug use that includes the sharing of needles or other equipment with injection partners also places women at risk for HIV. If you are a woman who is using or has used injection drugs in the past 10 years, or if you have a sexual partner who has used injection drugs, you may be at high risk for HIV infection. If you have a sexual partner who has been in jail, or who may have had sex with other men at some time, you also may be at high risk for HIV. If you know or believe you have had a sexual partner who has HIV, you may be at very high risk for HIV infection. The Illinois HIV and STD Hotline (800-244-2437) can assist you in finding free and anonymous HIV testing in your area.

What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS in women?

Many people have no symptoms when they first become infected with HIV. Some people may have a flu-like illness (including fever, headache, tiredness and enlarged lymph nodes) within a month or two after exposure to the virus. These symptoms usually disappear within a week to a month and are often mistaken for those of another viral infection.

More severe symptoms may not appear for 10 years or more. Even during the asymptomatic period, the virus is active inside a person’s body and can be passed to another person.

As the immune system worsens, a variety of complications start to occur. For many people, the first signs of infection are large lymph nodes or “swollen glands” that may be enlarged for more than three months. Other symptoms often experienced months to years before the onset of AIDS include:

Most symptoms of HIV disease are similar in men and women. Women who have HIV can have additional symptoms that happen more often. These include:

What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?

The term AIDS refers to the most advanced stages of HIV infection. Most of the conditions affecting people with AIDS are opportunistic infections that generally do not affect healthy people. In people with AIDS, these infections are often severe and sometimes fatal because the immune system is so ravaged by HIV that the body cannot fight off the infection. Symptoms of opportunistic infections common in people with AIDS include:

People with AIDS also are particularly prone to developing various cancers. These cancers are usually more aggressive and difficult to treat in people with AIDS.

How can a woman reduce her chances of contracting HIV?

HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids like blood and semen. Using injection drugs, having unprotected sex and having multiple sex partners increases the chances of acquiring HIV. The only way to be absolutely certain you do not become infected with HIV is to not have sex and not use injection drugs. You also can avoid infection by only having one sex partner as long as your partner does not have HIV and has sex only with you. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), using a male or female condom every time you have vaginal or anal sex can greatly lower your risk of infection. Using condoms for oral sex will reduce your risk for other STDs as well. It also is important not to douche, since douching removes some of the normal vaginal bacteria that can protect you from infection.

How is HIV diagnosed?

An HIV antibody test, either from a blood sample or an oral sample (Orasure), can tell whether you have been infected. A negative test result means no HIV antibodies were found. This usually means you are not infected. However, if you engaged in behavior that could spread the virus within three months of having the test, antibodies may not be detectable and you should be re-tested. A positive test result means antibodies to HIV were found. This means you are infected with the virus and can pass HIV to others even if you have no symptoms. You are infected for life. Even if you think you have a low risk for HIV infection, consider getting tested whenever you have a regular medical check-up.

Is there any treatment of a cure for HIV/AIDS?

Currently, there is no cure for HIV/AIDS. People living with HIV will need lifelong treatment. The best treatments right now are combinations of prescription drugs. These medications include antiviral treatment, protease inhibitors and other drugs that help people who are living with HIV stay healthy. People living with HIV also can stay healthy by doing things like eating properly, exercising and getting enough sleep.

If I am pregnant and have HIV, will my baby also have HIV?

Most women with HIV can protect their baby from becoming infected during pregnancy. Proper pre-natal treatment can reduce the risk that an HIV-positive mother will pass the virus to her child to less than 1 percent. The only way these special treatments can be provided is if the health care professionals know the mother is living with HIV. Treatment is most effective when started early in pregnancy. HIV-positive moms should not breastfeed their babies because HIV is sometimes passed this way.

We know that men who have sex with men in Illinois are at higher risk for HIV. What about women who have sex with women?

It is not a person’s gender, sexual orientation, race or class that puts them at risk for HIV. People are at risk for HIV when they practice risky behaviors. Women who identify as lesbian or gay can be at risk for HIV by practicing any of the behaviors that place women at risk. Lesbian women have become infected with HIV by using injection drugs or having unprotected sex with male or female partners who are already infected with HIV. Women who have sex with other women should follow guidelines in this fact sheet to protect themselves, and can call the Illinois AIDS/HIV/STD Hotline at 800-243-AIDS (2437) for specific information.

More information about women and HIV/AIDS can be obtained by contacting:


Illinois Department of Public Health
AIDS/HIV/STD Hotline 800-243-AIDS


National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention