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.
HIV is transmitted through certain body fluids that are capable of containing high concentrations of HIV antibodies. These fluids include 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, or open sores of a noninfected person (HIV negative).
Amniotic and spinal cord fluids can also contain the HIV virus and may be a risk to healthcare personnel who are exposed to them. Other bodily fluids, such as tears and saliva, cannot spread the infection unless they are mixed with fluids that can.
Vaginal sex is one mode of HIV transmission. There have been reported cases of HIV transmission via oral sex. 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 intravenous drug use or getting a tattoo with contaminated instruments. Safety regulations generally prevent blood transfusion-related infection.
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. Blood donations that test positive for HIV are safely discarded and do not enter the U.S. blood supply.
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 the virus.
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.
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.
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 every six months.
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 ask for help from a doctor to get off drugs.
When HIV first emerged, being HIV positive was a death sentence with a huge stigma attached to it. Researchers have studied transmission extensively and developed treatments that allow 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.