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Women's Health

Female and Facing HIV: The Challenges

As a woman living with HIV, you will have many of the same health issues as HIV-positive men—but you are likely to face greater challenges related to caring for your family, finding access to medical care and treatment, and dealing with social stigma. In addition, you may face health issues related to gynecological care and family planning.

Gynecological Care

Gynecological care is very important for your overall health and well-being. You can see your primary care provider or a women’s health provider for this type of care, but be sure that your provider is aware of the links between gynecological problems and HIV/AIDS.

HIV affects your immune system, and, for women, this can cause specific gynecological issues, including:

  • Cervical dysplasia (abnormal Pap smear)
  • Anal/Rectal dysplasia
  • Invasive cervical cancer
  • Extensive herpes simplex 2 (herpes)
  • Recurrent yeast infections (vaginal candidiasis)
  • Recurrent genital warts

“Dysplasia” simply means “abnormal cell growth.” Cervical dysplasia is caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a virus that causes various warts, including plantar and genital warts. Some strains of HPV can also cause cervical cancer.

HPV can cause normal cells on your cervix to turn abnormal. Most of the time, HPV goes away on its own, and your cervical cells go back to normal. But if HPV lingers for many years, these abnormal cells can turn into cancer.

While all women are vulnerable to cervical cancer, your risk of cervical cancer increases if you have HIV because your immune system is weaker and less able to fight HPV infection. You can have HPV and cervical dysplasia without knowing it, so it’s important to have regular check-ups, including a pelvic exam and a Pap test.

Untreated cervical dysplasia can progress to cervical cancer. Invasive cervical cancer is considered an AIDS-defining diagnosis.

For more information, see CDC’s Human Papilloma Virus.

Although treatment for cervical dysplasia and cancer is available, prevention is the goal. You can protect yourself by seeing your healthcare provider regularly for a pelvic exam and a Pap test. Early detection, treatment, and follow-up are essential for keeping you healthy.

For more information, see the Body’s HPV & Cervical Cancer Exit Disclaimer.

Pregnancy and Childbirth

If you have HIV and you are pregnant, you can take HIV medications that will help protect your unborn baby from the virus. The chances of your baby being infected drop dramatically if you take those HIV meds during pregnancy and delivery. That’s why it’s so important for pregnant women to be tested for HIV early in their pregnancies and to be monitored closely during pregnancy and labor.

Talk with your healthcare provider about HIV and pregnancy. For more information, see AIDSinfo’s HIV During Pregnancy, Labor and Delivery, and After Birth: Health Information for HIV Positive Pregnant Women.

Emotional and Social Support Systems

If you are living with HIV/AIDS, physical issues are only one part of having HIV disease. You may also face challenges with:

  • Caring for children
  • Finding appropriate and skilled medical care
  • Handling relationship issues with your intimate partner (abuse, financial dependency, etc.)
  • Finding advocacy and care in your immediate community

These challenges may be complicated if you are:

  • Poor
  • A member of an ethnic or racial minority
  • Not covered by health insurance (or have limited coverage)
  • Affected by substance abuse—either your own or your partner’s

If you are facing these challenges, you need a support system (either in your community or within your family) so that you can get the care and treatment you need to stay healthy. Please contact your healthcare provider or local AIDS service organization for more information on support systems in your area.

For more information, see Womenshealth.gov’s Women and HIV.

Last revised: 06/01/2011