To study incidence and risk factors of heterosexually transmitted HIV infection, we followed a cohort of 343 seronegative women, stable, monogamous partners of infected men whose only risk of acquiring HIV was sexual exposure to the infected partner. Nineteen seroconversions occurred in 529.6 person years (py) of observation, yielding an incidence rate of 3.6 per 100 py. The incidence rate was 7.2 per 100 py among women who did not always use or never used condoms and 1.1 among those who always used them [relative risk (RR) 6.6, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.9-21.9]. Anal sex was associated with a risk increase in only those women not always using condoms (RR 1.4, 95% CI 0.4-4.8). No seroconversions were observed among 22 women using oral contraceptives. One of the women using intrauterine devices seroconverted. In couples who did not always use condoms, seroconversions occurred more frequently in partners of men with symptomatic diseases, with a low CD4+ cell number (< 400 per mm3) or with a detectable p24 antigen. In couples not always using condoms and where the man had a low CD4+ cell count, the joint presence of blood viral antigens and AIDS symptoms conditioned a fivefold increased risk of seroconversion of the woman (RR 5.4, CI 1.4-20.3). At multivariate analysis, women with longer relationships (> or = 1 year) showed a lower risk of seroconversion (RR 0.3, CI 0.1-0.8), and those partners of men positive for p24 antigen in serum had an increased risk of seroconversion (RR = 4.0, CI 0.1-0.8).