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What do "Low" and "High" risk really mean?

Jul 31, 1996

What does it mean when an activity is "low" or "high" risk? I realize it is hard to specifically quantify the level of risk asociated with activities so it is given in general terms. However, I'm not sure I know exactly what these terms mean. From my understanding, a low risk activity is an activity I can perform over a long period of time (10 years for example) and expect to be safe. This is not to say that I couldn't be infected but that it would be unlikely. However, how risky is "high" risk? If I engaged in an high risk activity with HIV positive person would I likely be infected or only if I continued this behavior over a long period of time?

Response from Mr. Sowadsky

Thank you for your question. The terms High Risk and Low Risk are actually relative terms. Generally speaking, risks could either be no risk, low risk, or high risk.

No risk: This means there would be no chance of infection. This includes not having sex or not sharing needles. It includes having sex or sharing needles with an UNINFECTED person. It includes phone sex, computer sex, and masturbation by yourself. No matter how many times you would engage in a no risk activity, you would not be at risk of infection.

Low Risk: This means that although there is a risk of infection, the chances that you would become infected would be very unlikely. This includes having protected sex with a condom (used consistantly and correctly), mutual masturbation, body rubbing/massage, kissing, or receiving oral sex (exposure to saliva). In some countries, including the United States, receiving a blood transfusion is now very low risk. It also includes sharing needles that have been cleaned with bleach. Cleaning needles with bleach significantly reduces the risk of infection, but if not done correctly, could still lead to some risk of infection.

High Risk: This means that there would be a significant risk of infection. The more times that you engage in a high risk activity, the greater the chance of infection. High risk activities include unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse, giving oral sex, and sharing needles that have not been cleaned with bleach. While engaging in risky behaviors, you can become infected after just one time, or it can take multiple exposures before you become infected. But the more times you put yourself at risk, the greater the chance of infection.

When we're talking about high versus low risk, we're saying that high risk activities are much more likely to lead to transmission compared to a low risk activity. But one cannot quantify the risk. It's all relative.

If you have further questions, please e-mail me at "" or call me at 1-800-842-AIDS.

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