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HIV Transmission: Facts and Fictions

The truth about HIV transmission

Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can, over time, cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), for which there is currently no known cure or vaccine. HIV has existed in society since at least the 1970s, but misinformation and misunderstanding about how HIV is transmitted still persist today.

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How HIV is transmitted

According to the United States government AIDS website, HIV is not spread easily — only certain body fluids from a person who has HIV can transmit HIV:

  • Blood
  • Semen (cum)
  • Pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
  • Rectal fluids
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk

Sexual Transmission

In the context of a sexually transmitted disease (STD), HIV can be transmitted when the aforementioned fluids in an HIV infected person come into contact with mucous membranes in the rectum, vagina, penis, or mouth of another person. In other words, HIV can be spread during vaginal, anal and oral sex. Transmission through anal sex can be more likely than through vaginal sex, because anal sex generally causes more trauma and irritation to the mucous membranes. Transmission through oral sex is less likely, however HIV transmission can occur during ejaculation of semen into the mouth, or via mouth ulcers, bleeding gums, or genital sores.

Using condoms during sex can significantly lower the risk of HIV transmission.

Kissing

Light kissing poses little risk of HIV transmission. However, deep kissing may pose a risk if the person infected with HIV has open sores or oral bleeding.

Needles and Open Wounds

HIV can also spread if infected fluids come into contact with damaged tissue, such as a cut in the skin, or if infected blood is transferred from a needle or syringe. Sharing needles or syringes (e.g., in connection with medical treatment or injection drugs) with someone who is HIV infected carries a high risk of HIV transmission. HIV is a relatively robust virus, and can be found in a used needle or syringe for more than 40 days after initial contact.

Pregnancy

HIV can be spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby during pregnancy, however modern treatment lowers the probability of transmission to less than one percent.

How HIV is NOT transmitted

There are many misconceptions about HIV and AIDS, the most common of which is that AIDS can spread through casual contact.

Casual Contact

Hugging pose no risk of transmission. Likewise, sexual activity that does not involve exchanging infected body fluids cannot spread HIV.

Sharing a living space with someone who has HIV is generally safe. This includes sharing a bathroom, as HIV cannot survive on toilet seats or other typical bathroom surfaces.

Even if an HIV infected person’s blood comes into contact with your intact skin, transmission of the virus is not a significant risk — transmission usually requires a cut or abrasion to allow the virus to get past your body’s skin layer.

Food and Utensils

Although you should avoid sharing razor blades and toothbrushes with an HIV infected person, sharing eating utensils, food and other household items will not pose a high risk of spreading HIV.

Other Fluids

HIV does not spread through saliva, sweat, or tears. Accordingly, coughing, sneezing, spitting and sharing a cup do not pose high risks of spreading HIV.

Insects

HIV is not viable in mosquitoes, ticks and other insects, thus they do not transmit the disease.

Blood Transfusions

Donated blood used in blood transfusions at modern hospitals is subject to advanced screening procedures, during which any blood that tests positive for HIV is disposed.

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