Health Encyclopedia

AIDS, HIV and Pregnancy

What is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus destroys or weakens the cells of the immune system. A weak immune system reduces the body's ability to fight infections and certain cancers over time. The term "AIDS" means the HIV infection is in its most advanced stages.

How is HIV transmitted or spread?

Adults and teens most commonly get HIV through sexual activity with someone who already has the virus. Nearly all children under the age of 13 are infected with HIV by their mothers. This happens in the womb or as they pass through the birth canal during labor. The virus can also be passed to children through breastfeeding. 

Not every child born to a mother with HIV will get the virus. Without treatment, a woman with HIV has a one in four chance of infecting her fetus. But, early testing and treatment can reduce the number of  mother-to-child HIV infections. If a test shows a woman has HIV, she can take antiretroviral medications during pregnancy and labor. These medications can also be used to treat the infant for a short time after birth.

These are the ways the HIV virus can be passed to another person:

  • Vertical transmission. This is when HIV is spread to babies who are born to, or breastfed by, mothers infected with the virus.

  • Sexual contact. HIV is spread in adults and adolescents most commonly by sexual contact with an infected partner. The virus enters the body through the lining of the vagina, vulva, penis, rectum, or mouth through sexual activity.

  • Blood contamination. HIV may also be spread through contact with infected blood. However, due to the screening of blood for the HIV virus, the risk of getting HIV from blood transfusions is extremely low.

  • Needles. HIV is often spread by sharing needles, syringes, or drug use equipment with someone who is infected with the virus. It is rare for patients to infect healthcare workers, or vice-versa, through accidental sticks with contaminated needles or other medical instruments.

No known cases of HIV/AIDS have been spread by the following:

  • Saliva

  • Sweat

  • Tears

  • Casual contact, such as sharing food utensils, towels, and bedding

  • Swimming pools

  • Telephones

  • Toilet seats

  • Biting insects, such as mosquitoes

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Some people may get a flu-like illness within a month or two after exposure to the HIV virus. This flu-like illness is often thought to be something else. Many people don't have any symptoms at all when they first become infected. Continued or severe symptoms may show up within 2 years in babies born with an HIV infection. Continued or severe symptoms may not surface for 10 years or more, after HIV first enters the body in adults, or within 2 years in children born with an HIV infection. 

The symptoms of HIV may seem like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your baby's health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) diagnosed?

Doctors and HIV experts agree that all pregnant women should get an HIV test. A blood test is the most common way to diagnose HIV in children over 18 months, teens, and adults.

Treatment of human immunodeficiency virus

Care that includes HIV counseling, testing, and treatment of infected mothers during pregnancy saves lives. It is recommended that HIV-positive women take specific medications during pregnancy and during labor. Blood tests are also done to check the amount of virus. HIV-positive women should see a specialist during pregnancy.

Newborn babies of HIV-positive mothers may also receive medication to lower the chances of passing HIV on to the baby.

Cesarean delivery may be recommended for HIV-positive women. This also helps reduce the risk of transmission of the virus to the baby, especially when the mother receives medications. HIV may also be transmitted through breast milk. Because breast milk contains the virus, HIV-positive mothers should not breastfeed their babies.



Medical Reviewers:

  • Akin, Louise, RN
  • MMI board-certified, academically-affiliated clinician