Busting HIV Transmission Myths
Part of the fear of HIV and AIDS comes from not knowing the facts. The more knowledge you have, the better you’ll be able to protect yourself.
What Is HIV?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system. HIV can cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a disease that severely weakens immunity, and can be fatal.
One person passes HIV to another under certain circumstances. Understanding the facts rather than buying into lingering myths about transmission can prevent misinformation—and HIV—from spreading.
Transmission Through Body Fluids
HIV is transmitted through certain body fluids that are capable of containing high concentrations of HIV antibodies, such as blood, semen, vaginal and rectal secretions, and breast milk.
HIV is transmitted when fluids from an infected person (HIV positive) pass through the mucous membranes, cuts, open sores, or tears in the skin of a non-infected person (HIV negative).
Other bodily fluids, such as tears and saliva, have very small quantities of HIV antibodies and carry only a remote risk of infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Amniotic and spinal cord fluids can also contain the HIV virus, and may be a risk to health care personnel who are exposed to them.
The Anatomy of Transmission
Vaginal sex is one mode of HIV transmission. In rare cases, oral sex with someone who is infected can spread HIV. However, anal sex presents the highest risk of transmission among sexual activity. Bleeding is more likely during anal sex due to the fragile tissues that line the anus. This allows the virus to enter the body more easily.
HIV can also be spread from mother to child in utero and through breastfeeding. Any circumstances in which you are exposed to the blood of someone who is HIV positive can be a risk factor. This includes sharing needles for IV drug use or getting a tattoo with contaminated instruments. Safety regulations generally prevent blood transfusion-related infection.
Blood Banks Are Safe
The risk of being infected with HIV from a blood transfusion is now extremely rare in the United States. The Public Health Service started testing all donated blood for HIV in 1985, after medical personnel realized that donated blood could be a source of HIV infection. Tests that are more sophisticated were put into place in the 1990s to further ensure the safety of donated blood, according to the CDC. Blood donations that test positive for HIV are safely discarded and do not enter the U.S. blood supply.
Casual Contact and Kissing
Many people are afraid that casual contact or kissing someone who has HIV can spread the infection. The virus doesn’t live on the skin and can’t live very long outside the body. Therefore casual contact, such as holding hands, hugging, or sitting next to someone who is HIV positive doesn’t transmit HIV.
According to UK-based HIV/AIDS organization AVERT, closed-mouth kissing isn’t a threat either. Open-mouthed kissing can be a risk factor when blood is involved, such as from bleeding gums or mouth sores. Saliva may contain small amounts of viral load, but not enough to transmit the virus.
Transmission Myths: Biting, Scratching, and Spitting
Scratching and spitting aren’t transmission methods for HIV. A scratch doesn’t lead to an exchange of bodily fluids. However, you can protect yourself with gloves to prevent the accidental exposure to infected blood when drawing blood from someone who is infected with HIV.
A bite that doesn’t break the skin can’t transmit infection either. However, a bite that opens the skin and causes bleeding can. According to the CDC, this has happened in a small number of cases that involved a blood-to-blood transfer between the biter and the person bit.
Protect Yourself: Safe Sex
You can protect yourself from HIV infection by practicing safe sex. Safe sex means using a new condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Remember to use water-based lubricants with condoms. Oil-based products can break down the latex, increasing the risk of leaks.
Safe sex also involves keeping open lines of communication with your partner. Discuss the risks associated with unprotected sex, and reveal your HIV status to your partner. It’s especially important to use condoms if one of you is HIV positive. An HIV-negative partner should be tested for the virus periodically.
Protect Yourself: Clean Needles
Contaminated drug needles can be a source of infection because the first prick of the needle brings a drop of blood to the surface. If the needle contains HIV antibodies, you’re at high-risk for infection. Many communities offer needle exchange programs that provide clean needles to reduce the spread of HIV. Make use of this resource as needed, and consider asking for help to get off drugs.
Education Banishes Myths and Stigmas
When HIV first emerged, being HIV positive was a sure death sentence with a huge stigma attached to it. Researchers have studied transmission extensively and developed treatment that allows many people who are infected to live long, productive lives.
Today, the stigma isn’t as great because more people understand the way HIV is spread. But let’s not stop there. Continued education is the key to banishing the myths and the spread of HIV.