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HIV/AIDS and Pregnancy

What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus. The virus can cause problems with the body’s immune system.  A weak immune system lowers the body's ability to fight infections and certain cancers over time. When cells of the immune system have been weakened or destroyed by HIV, it causes AIDS. AIDS is acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Not everyone who has HIV develops AIDS. AIDS is when the HIV infection is in its most advanced stages.

Some people may get a flu-like illness within a month or two after infection with HIV. Many people don't have any symptoms when they’re first infected. But HIV/AIDS is a serious infection that needs medical attention. It can turn into a severe illness over time and cause life-threatening problems and early death.

The risk to your baby

A mother can pass HIV to her baby during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding. Nearly all children under the age of 13 with HIV were infected by their mothers. This happens in the womb, or as they passed through the birth canal during labor. The virus can also be passed through breastmilk.

A pregnant woman with HIV has a 1 in 4 chance that her baby will get the virus. But with early diagnosis and treatment with medicine, you can reduce this risk to 1 to 2 in 100.

Getting tested for HIV during pregnancy

All pregnant women should get tested for HIV. Get the tests as early as possible in pregnancy, every time you’re pregnant. Blood tests are the most common way to diagnose HIV. Other tests can check for HIV in urine and saliva. When a test is positive, you’ll have more tests to check the results of the first test. When a test is negative, but it’s likely you were exposed to HIV, you’ll need follow-up testing in about 6 months.

Special care during pregnancy and childbirth

If you have HIV, you’ll need extra healthcare during pregnancy. This will include counseling, testing, and treatment. You’ll need to work with a healthcare provider who’s trained in high-risk pregnancy, infectious disease, or HIV.

You’ll need to take antiretroviral medicines during pregnancy and labor. And you’ll need regular blood tests to check the amount of HIV in your body.

Vaginal birth can expose a baby to the HIV virus. Talk with your healthcare provider about a cesarean (c-section) birth. A c-section helps reduce the risk of spreading the virus to the baby.

Special care for your baby after birth

Babies of mothers with HIV are watched closely. Your baby will be given anti-HIV medicines after birth. Your baby will have regular exams and blood tests. In most cases, a diagnosis of HIV infection can be made by the time a baby is 3 months old.

Because HIV can be passed on through breastmilk, you shouldn’t breastfeed your baby. Talk with your healthcare provider about formula feeding.

Living with HIV/AIDS

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. But new medicines can help people infected with the virus to lead healthier lives. It’s important to work with a specialist who treats HIV/AIDS, and to follow your treatment plan carefully. 

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider if you:

  • Are pregnant

  • Think you have had contact with HIV

  • Have HIV/AIDS and have an infection or new symptoms

Protect your baby

Remember, to help lower the risk to your baby:

  • Get tested during pregnancy. All pregnant women should have an HIV test.

  • Get treated during pregnancy. Work with a specialist who can treat HIV during pregnancy. Take your medicine exactly as instructed.

  • Don’t have a vaginal delivery. Talk with your healthcare provider about a c-section.

  • Don’t breastfeed. Talk with your healthcare provider about formula feeding.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
  • Holloway, Beth, RN