HIV

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 completed 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:

The CDC provides information and referrals to local testing sites, including free and anonymous testing, at hivtest.org. 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, mumps, rubella and measles 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

Most common questions

What is mononucleosis?

Mononucleosis (also called mono) is an infection usually caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It’s sometimes caused by another virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV). EBV and CMV are part of the herpes virus family. Mono is most common in teenagers and young adults, but anyone can get it. Mono is called the “kissing disease” because it’s usually passed from one person to another through saliva. In addition to kissing, it can also be passed through sneezing, coughing or sharing pillows, drinks, straws, and toothbrushes.

You can have mono without having any symptoms. But even if you don’t get sick, you can still pass it to others. Symptoms can include:

  • Achy muscles
  • Belly pain
  • Fatigue (feeling tired all the time)
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands in your neck

If your symptoms don’t go away or get worse, tell your health care provider. He’ll most likely do a physical exam and test your blood to find out for sure if you have mono.

There’s no vaccine to prevent mono. There’s also no specific treatment. The best care is to take it easy and get as much rest as you can. It may take a few weeks before you fully recover.

Can Rh factor affect my baby?

The Rh factor may be a problem if mom is Rh-negative but dad is Rh-positive. If dad is Rh-negative, there is no risk.

If your baby gets her Rh-positive factor from dad, your body may believe that your baby's red blood cells are foreign elements attacking you. Your body may make antibodies to fight them. This is called sensitization.

If you're Rh-negative, you can get shots of Rh immune globulin (RhIg) to stop your body from attacking your baby. It's best to get these shots at 28 weeks of pregnancy and again within 72 hours of giving birth if a blood test shows that your baby is Rh-positive. You won't need anymore shots after giving birth if your baby is Rh-negative. You should also get a shot after certain pregnancy exams like an amniocentesis, a chorionic villus sampling or an external cephalic version (when your provider tries to turn a breech-position baby head down before labor). You'll also want to get the shot if you have a miscarriage, an ectopic pregnancy or suffer abdominal trauma.

I had a miscarriage. How long should I wait to try again?

Before getting pregnant again, it's important that you are ready both physically and emotionally. If you don't need tests or treatments to discover the cause of the miscarriage, it's usually OK for you to become pregnant after one normal menstrual cycle. However, it may take longer for you to feel emotionally ready to be pregnant again. Everyone responds differently to a miscarriage. Only you will know when you are ready to try to get pregnant again.

Are gallstones common during pregnancy?

Not common, but they do happen. Elevated hormones during pregnancy can cause the gallbladder to function more slowly, less efficiently. The gallbladder stores and releases bile, a substance produced in the liver. Bile helps digest fat. When bile sits in the gallbladder for too long, hard, solid nuggets called gallstones can form. The stones can block the flow of bile, causing indigestion and sometimes serious pain. Staying at a healthy weight during pregnancy can help lower your risk of gallstones. Exercise and eating foods that are low in fat and high in fiber, like veggies, fruits and whole grains, can help, too. Symptoms of gallstones include nausea, vomiting and intense, continuous abdominal pain. Treatment during pregnancy may include surgery to remove the gallbladder. Gallstones in the third trimester can be managed with a strict meal plan and pain medication, followed by surgery several weeks after delivery.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).