HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It’s a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. In a healthy person, the immune system protects the body from infections, cancers and some diseases.

Over time, HIV can destroy the cells in the immune system so that it can’t protect the body. When this happens, HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

More than 1 million people in the United States live with HIV. There are about 50,000 new infections each year.

Nearly 30 percent (3 in 10) of new cases of HIV infection in the United States each year are in women. More than 250,000 women, most of childbearing age (15 to 44), live with HIV. Many don’t know they have it.

Nearly all children living with HIV get the virus from their mother during pregnancy, the process of birth or later through breastfeeding.

Although there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, powerful medicines can help protect those who have HIV from developing AIDS.

If you’re pregnant, get tested for HIV. Proper treatment usually can prevent you from passing HIV to your baby.

How is HIV spread?

You get HIV by coming in direct contact with body fluids from a person who is infected with HIV. Body fluids that can contain HIV include:

  • Blood
  • Breast milk
  • Semen
  • Vaginal fluids

HIV can be transmitted sexually. This means you can get it from having unprotected sex (sex without a condom) with an infected person. This is how women are most likely to get infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says:

  • Most (about 80 percent or 8 in 10) new HIV infections in women come from having sex with a man who is infected. Women are more likely than men to get infected through sex.
  • About 20 percent (2 in 10) of new HIV infections in women come from sharing drug needles.

Women most likely to become infected include:

  • Women whose partners use intravenous (IV) street drugs. This means the partners inject street drugs into their body through a needle into a vein.
  • Women whose partners also have sex with men
  • Women who have sex with more than one partner.

A small number of women get HIV from blood transfusions or tissue transplanted from an infected person.

If you have HIV, can you pass it to your baby?

Yes. Babies can get HIV from their mothers:

  • Before birth, when the virus crosses the placenta and infects the baby. The placenta grows in your uterus and supplies the baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord.
  • During labor and birth from contact with their mother’s blood and vaginal fluids
  • After birth through breast milk

There are ways to keep your baby from coming in contact with HIV in your body fluids during pregnancy. For example, your provider may recommend that you don’t get certain prenatal tests like amniocentesis or fetal-scalp blood sampling.

Studies show that you may lessen the chance of passing HIV to your baby by having a cesarean birth (c-section) before labor begins and your water breaks, instead of vaginal birth. The U.S. Public Health Service and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that health providers offer women with HIV a c-section at 38 weeks of pregnancy.

What are the signs and symptoms of HIV?

Many people who are infected with HIV don’t have symptoms at first. It can take 5 years or more for some people to have symptoms. Early signs and symptoms are:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Enlarged lymph nodes (swollen glands in the neck and groin)

How is HIV diagnosed?

Health care providers diagnose HIV with a blood test. After HIV enters your blood, your body begins to make antibodies to fight it. A blood test can find these antibodies and show that you are infected.

All women need to be aware of their HIV status before getting pregnant. The CDC recommends that all pregnant women get tested for HIV. It also recommends getting tested again later in pregnancy if you live in an area where HIV is common or if you do things that put you at risk for HIV, like having unprotected sex or injecting street drugs. Women with HIV can get treatment and help protect their babies from becoming infected.

If you haven’t had an HIV test during pregnancy, you can be checked during labor and birth with a quick test. If this test shows you have HIV, you can get treatment to help protect your baby from infection.

Where can you get tested for HIV?

You can get an HIV test from:

  • Your health care provider
  • The local health department
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Special testing sites

The CDC provides information and referrals to local testing sites, including free and anonymous testing, at Or call (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636).

How is HIV treated?

People with HIV usually are treated with combinations of medicines that fight HIV. These medicines often slow the spread of HIV in the body. Pregnant woman with HIV need treatment with these medicines throughout pregnancy.

Some medicines used to treat HIV may be harmful to a baby during pregnancy. And some medicines are too new, so we don’t yet know if they’re safe to take during pregnancy. To find out about the safety of medicines used to treat HIV during pregnancy, see the Department of Health and Human Services info sheet.

Talk with your health care provider about treatment options to help prevent you from passing the infection to your baby. If you’re pregnant and already taking HIV medicines, tell your provider about all the medicines you take.

How are babies with HIV treated?

Babies with HIV may look healthy at birth. But if they are not treated, about 15 percent become seriously ill and may die during the first year of life. Thanks to good HIV treatment, more than 95 percent survive and can live a full life.

If you have HIV during pregnancy, get your baby tested for the virus:

  • At 2 to 3 weeks after birth
  • At 1 to 2 months of age
  • At 4 to 6 months of age

Some providers test babies within 48 hours of birth. This test can find most infected babies by 1 month and all by 4 months.

The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all infants infected with HIV be treated with a combination of anti-HIV medicines. The medicines can slow the infection and help them survive.

Most babies infected with HIV can get all routine childhood vaccinations. But some of these babies shouldn’t get live-virus vaccines, such as the chickenpox, , rubella and vaccines. They should be vaccinated against polio, but only with the injectable Salk vaccine and not the oral vaccine. Talk to your baby’s provider to find out which vaccines are safe for your baby.

How can you protect yourself from HIV?

Try to avoid all possible sources of HIV infection. Here’s how:

  • Have safe sex. Use latex condoms for protection.
  • Have sex with only one person who is not infected with HIV and who has no other sex partners.
  • Don’t use needles, razors or other items that may come in contact with another person’s blood.

Last reviewed: May, 2012