HIV Prevention & Risks

Reviewed by Ruthann Cunningham, MD, June 26, 2017

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread by an infected person through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, or breast milk. Intensity of viral concentration is highest in blood, followed by semen. The vast majority of HIV infections, estimated at 85%, are transmitted through sexual intercourse. The highest risk sexual practice for HIV transmission is anal and vaginal intercourse. Why? The virus enters the mucous membranes inside the anal or vaginal canal through "microtears" in the tissue. HIV can be transmitted through oral sex, although this is considered a lower-risk practice. Sharing needles passes blood directly from one person to another so this is a common way to spread HIV. Sharing needles is considered high risk. Mothers can also pass along HIV to babies before birth, during delivery and through breast milk.

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HIV does NOT spread through normal day-to-day contact.

HIV does not spread through skin-to skin contact like shaking hands, hugging or casual kissing. It doesn't spread through casual kissing. In fact, only one case of intimate, tongue-to-tongue kissing has ever been shown to spread HIV and that was because there was blood exchanged from a wound in the HIV positive kisser's mouth. Since HIV can't survive outside the body very long, it can't be spread from a toilet seat, drinking fountain, doorknob, eating utensils, drinking glasses or food. Saliva, tears, sweat and urine do not contain enough virus to infect anyone through coughing, sneezing, crying, land sports or water sports. There are also no known cases worldwide of HIV spreading through mosquitoes.

Can I get HIV from getting a tattoo or body piercing?

Maybe. There is a risk of HIV transmission if the tools used to tattoo or pierce aren't properly sterilized and disinfected. If you are getting tattooed or pierced, make sure you ask the staff about their sterilization processes. Well-run establishments will be happy to show you. If they brush off your concerns, turn and walk out.

How can HIV impact my health?

HIV weakens the body's immune system. Without a strong immune system, the body is more vulnerable to "opportunistic" infections and types of cancers. Antiretroviral drugs have done an excellent job of protecting against these infections, but without treatment, people living with HIV may be vulnerable to a wide variety of infections, parasites, and cancers including:

  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Herpes
  • Hepatitis
  • Liver disease
  • Meningitis
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Other infections, cancers, and complications

How can I reduce my risk of getting HIV?

Use lubricated latex condoms each and every time you have sex. Lambskin condoms don't block HIV and STDs. If you're allergic to latex, use polyurethane condoms. When used the right way (every time), condoms are highly effective in preventing the spread of HIV and also protecting against many other STDs.

It is also important to know your own HIV status, as well as your partner's. Getting an HIV and STD test is the first step toward protecting your own health and your partner's.

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