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HIV Transmission

May 2012

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Table of Contents


How HIV Spreads

Many people still do not understand how HIV is passed, or transmitted, from one person to another. Knowing the basics helps you avoid getting the virus if you are HIV-negative, and avoid giving it to someone else if you are living with HIV (HIV+).

HIV is spread through contact with the following body fluids:

  • Blood (including menstrual blood)
  • Semen ("cum") and other male sexual fluids ("pre-cum")
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk

HIV is also spread through contact with these body fluids; however, usually only health care workers come into contact with these fluids:

  • Fluid around the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid)
  • Fluid around the joints (synovial fluid)
  • Fluid around a developing fetus (amniotic fluid)

HIV is not spread through contact with these body fluids:

  • Sweat
  • Tears
  • Saliva (spit)
  • Feces (poop)
  • Urine (pee)

The spread of HIV can be prevented! There are ways to avoid, or at least reduce, contact with body fluids that spread HIV. This info sheet explains how.



Methods of Transmission

Today, the most common ways HIV is passed from one person to another are:

  • Re-using and sharing needles for injecting drugs (including steroids or hormones)
  • Unprotected/unsafe sex (no condoms or other barriers)
  • Mother-to-child (during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding)

Re-Using and Sharing Needles for Injecting Drugs (Including Steroids or Hormones)

  • Injecting Drugs (including steroids or hormones): Many HIV infections occur when people share the equipment used to inject heroin, methamphetamines, steroids, hormones, or other drugs. Re-using syringes, needles, water, spoons, "cookers," or "cottons" can spread HIV. Be sure to use syringes and needles only from reliable sources, such as needle exchange programs or pharmacies. Many cities offer free needle and syringe exchange programs. For more information, see our info sheet on Cleaning Works.
  • Tattoos or Body Piercings: Tattoos or body piercings should always be done by a licensed professional whose equipment is sterile. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that instruments be used only once and then thrown away. Reusable instruments must be sterilized between uses. Using alcohol to clean instruments is not sufficient. Proper sterilization involves having instruments steam sterilized, or autoclaved

Unprotected/Unsafe Sex

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Every sexual act (oral, anal, or vaginal) that involves sexual fluids has at least some risk. Barriers, such as condoms (male and female), dental dams (thin squares of latex), and latex gloves help reduce risk substantially.

Unsafe sex (sex without condoms or barriers) puts you and/or your partner at risk for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Safer sex (sex using condoms or other barriers consistently and correctly) is the most effective way to protect you and your partner.

Which common sexual activities are most likely to cause HIV transmission when safer sex isn't used? Listed from most to least risky:

  1. Receptive anal sex ("bottoming"): Taking a penis through one's anus and into one's rectum remains the most risky activity. This is due to the likelihood of small tears in the rectum that allow semen ("cum") to have direct contact with the bloodstream.
  2. Receptive vaginal intercourse: This refers to taking a penis into one's vagina. HIV is transmitted from men to women much more easily than from women to men.
  3. Insertive anal sex ("topping"): Putting one's penis into someone else's anus and rectum can expose you to HIV.
  4. Insertive vaginal intercourse: Putting one's penis into a vagina, especially when the woman is menstruating, can expose you to HIV.
  5. Giving oral sex: Using one's mouth to lick, suck, or bite another person's genitals (penis, vagina, or anus) can expose you to HIV. Swallowing semen ("cum"), licking menstrual blood, and having bad oral hygiene (mouth sores, bleeding gums) will increase your risk of getting HIV.
  6. Receiving oral sex: Having your genitals licked, sucked, or bitten is less risky than giving oral sex. However, you can get HIV from your partner, especially if your partner has bad oral hygiene.
  7. Sharing sex toys without sterilizing them or using a new condom: This can allow HIV to be transmitted from the first partner to the next one who uses the toy.
  8. Mutual masturbation (hand jobs) and fisting (using a hand to penetrate the anus or vagina): These are relatively low risk, as long as your hand has no open cuts or sores.

Sexual assault or rape can result in infection if the attacker is HIV+. The risk increases when rape involves anal penetration, force, and/or multiple attackers. Some forced sexual acts involving wounds can place a victim at very high risk.

Survivors of sexual assault or rape who do not already have HIV should be routinely offered PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis; also called non-occupational PEP, or nPEP) in emergency rooms. This 28-day treatment with HIV drugs greatly reduces the chances of becoming infected with HIV. PEP must be started within the first 72 hours of exposure to be effective. The earlier treatment is started, the more effective it will be. If PEP is not offered in the emergency room or clinic after a rape or sexual assault, do not be afraid to ask for it. The CDC issued recommendations for PEP following non-occupational exposures like sexual assault and rape in 2005.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with TheBody.com to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from TheBody.com or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.
 
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