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In the Meantime...

What can women do today?

The best advice for sexually active women today is to use a male or female condom during every act of intercourse, whether it is vaginal, anal or oral sex. There are workshops and skills-building materials that can help individuals learn creative ways to introduce and insist on condom use.

Women should also get tested for HIV and other STIs and encourage their partner's to get tested. If both partners are disease-free and mutually monogamous (having sex with no one but each other), then the risk of getting HIV from sex is minimal.

There are other ways that women can reduce their risk. One is to reduce the frequency of sexual intercourse, or practice "non-penetrative" sex. There are any number of normal, satisfying sexual behaviors -- collectively known as "outer-course" -- that carry little risk of HIV transmission. Many women use their hands, thighs or bodies to stimulate their partners externally (and to receive stimulation) in ways that don't involve penile penetration. HIV is not transmitted by mutual masturbation as long as semen or vaginal secretions do not enter the mouth, vagina or rectum. (It should be noted, however, that such activities can potentially transmit other STI pathogens such as those that cause herpes.)

A healthy vagina has its own natural defense systems that help fight HIV and other STIs. Women can keep their vagina healthy by avoiding practices that disrupt the natural vaginal ecology. Women should NOT

  • Douche
  • Use substances to dry or tighten the vagina, such as herbs or astringents
  • Use sprays or other products described as vaginal deodorants or vaginal cleansers
  • Insert objects or sex toys that have not been cleaned with soap and water.

Both douching and vaginal substance use has been linked to increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease and HIV (Zhang, 1997). If a woman feels she must wash after intercourse, she should wipe the inside of the vagina gently, using warm water only.

Women can also help protect themselves by seeking prompt treatment for all reproductive tract infections, since the risk of getting or transmitting HIV is higher if the individual has another STI or infection. Symptoms of reproductive tract infections include:

  • Itching
  • burning sensations
  • painful urination
  • unusual amount of discharge or a bad odor associated with discharge
  • flu-like symptoms.

HOWEVER, reproductive tract infections do not necessarily have symptoms, especially in women. It is a good idea to visit a doctor or clinic for testing if a woman suspects she may have an infection or have been exposed to one.