You know the old saying: A lie can travel around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes.
That old adage is especially true for HIV, a virus that has preyed on people’s hysteria since it was first named and reported on in the early 1980s. Who gets it, where it came from, how it’s transmitted: Almost every factual aspect of HIV has a mythical counterpart.
Of course, that’s not any specific person’s fault. Much of the United States still lacks a basic grasp of sexual and infectious disease education, which means there’s a severe lack of HIV education, as well.
With the HIV response largely underfunded and fact-based education hard to find, it’s no surprise that myths abound to fill the void. In this article, we’ll dispel a few of the most persistent myths about HIV and replace them with the actual, verifiable facts:
HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence.
There is no cure for HIV. (Two people in history have been cured, but we’re not close to a widely available cure.)
HIV medications save countless lives. (They do way, way more good than harm.)
Anyone can get HIV, not just gay men.
You cannot get HIV from mosquitos, swimming pools, toilet seats, etc.
People in monogamous relationships can still get HIV.
You cannot treat HIV without taking HIV medications.
Birth control drugs cannot prevent HIV.
You can have a baby if you’re HIV positive. (You absolutely can—and safely!)
Let’s get into the details on these facts—and how you can use them to counter HIV/AIDS myths.
FACT: HIV/AIDS Is Not a Death Sentence
Just saying the words “HIV” or “AIDS” can conjure up some really horrifying images and feelings for people. Some people can’t help but associate the virus with its worst potential results. Many of these images come from an earlier period, like the 1980s and 1990s, when death rates from AIDS-related illnesses were extremely high in the U.S.
Of course, for the most part, HIV is a chronic, manageable illness now. And research shows that people living with HIV who starting taking medications soon after becoming HIV positive can live just as long as an HIV-negative person.
There’s a lot more to living healthily with HIV than just taking meds. But the point is: Living a long time with HIV isn’t just possible, it’s the norm.
For a long time, the myth spread that HIV/AIDS was a death sentence, and it’s clear to see why—at one time, it did result in people dying in most cases. But a better way to think about it is that HIV actually exposed a lot of inequalities in the way the U.S. treats its subjects, and the people dying were those who were most marginalized: queer people, people of color, people living in poverty, etc.
The United States still has about 7,000 deaths a year from AIDS-related illnesses, but it’s not the case that HIV is a death sentence. In fact, it’s structural inequalities and stigma that kill more than any virus.
FACT: There Is No Cure for HIV
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV. But there is hope that we can still find one.
The origin of this myth lies mostly in the story of Magic Johnson, the former professional basketball star who was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Johnson was diagnosed at a time when the virus was still (as we noted in the first myth above) associated with death and decline. But, as Magic Johnson has said many times, he hasn’t been cured of HIV, he’s simply on successful treatment—just like millions of other Americans.
Here’s what makes talking about cures more complicated: There are two people who have been cured of HIV. We even know their names: Timothy Brown, aka the Berlin Patient, and Adam Castillejo, the London Patient. Brown was cured over a decade ago; Castillejo’s cure was only officially declared in 2020.
But although two people among the many millions diagnosed with HIV were cured, that doesn’t mean we have a true cure—that is, a way to realistically eradicate HIV within every living person who has the virus. Both Brown and Castillejo were cured through costly, dangerous, intense stem-cell transplants with tissue from a donor who had an HIV-resistant gene mutation. They only received these transplants as a last-ditch effort to treat a cancer they were also living with.
So while researchers are studying their cases to unlock a key to the cure, most experts believe that their specific way of being cured is not viable for mass use.
Much of the fuel behind the HIV cure myth also comes from a high sense of mistrust among marginalized groups toward both the federal government and the medical community. (Chris Rock even has a famous set in one of his standup specials that outlines the belief that pharmaceutical companies don’t invest in cures because there is more money in treatment than in curing people.)
Factor in a history of government interference in the health of marginalized people—the Tuskegee experiments, forced sterilization—and you have a set of circumstances where such a myth could ripen.
Whether you seek info on basic definitions, origins, symptoms, risk factors, prevention, testing, daily life, or the search for a cure, we've got you covered with the most important facts to understand about today's HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Speaking of distrust in the medical community, here’s another good example: Despite mountains of evidence that HIV medications keep people living with HIV healthy, there are still skeptics who believe that treatment for HIV causes more damage than HIV itself does.
Any medication—whether it’s an over-the-counter pill or something prescribed by your doctor—can have potential side effects on your bodily chemistry. One of the origins of this myth was that early HIV medications actually did cause a ton of side effects, some of which were severe. (The first drug ever approved to treat HIV, AZT, was so toxic because it was prescribed at high doses. It’s still used today by some people living with HIV as part of a multi-drug regimen—but at a much lower, safer dose!)
HIV medication has become easier to tolerate with each new drug introduced—this is what’s helped turn HIV into a chronic illness. On top of that, HIV medication is now a cornerstone of fighting the spread of HIV. Thanks to the knowledge that undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U) is real (that is, people whose HIV viral load is undetectable thanks to treatment cannot pass the virus on to others during sex), we know that people who are on effective medications cannot spread HIV to anyone else sexually.
And yet, this harmful myth about the harms of HIV meds keeps persisting. Just last year, we saw ads flood Facebook claiming that the HIV drug Truvada (FTC/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate), which is also used to prevent HIV in HIV-negative people, commonly caused terrible side effects. These ads were created by law firms trying to shore up clients to join class-action lawsuits. The ads have since been the subject of numerous lawsuits—the opposite of the kind that the law firms were hoping for—and most have since been removed.
We walk you through the basics on how HIV medications work, what side effects they can cause, how they've improved over the years, the causes and solutions of drug resistance, and what the future holds in store.
Though this myth is less prevalent than it once was, there’s still a general feeling within the U.S. that HIV is a gay man’s burden and not an illness that anyone can contract at any time. But that is the truth.
Anyone can get HIV—a friend, a cousin, a colleague, or a partner—regardless of a person’s physical characteristics or identity. All you need to transmit HIV is a fluid that contains HIV and entry to a person’s bloodstream. It has nothing to do with identity.
However, as previously stated, while HIV does not care about identity, structural inequalities do. This is why HIV was associated with gay men early in the U.S. epidemic, and why gay men continue to see high HIV infection rates. Because of rampant queerphobia, the federal government did little in the 1980s to stem the tide of infections and deaths, with some reports showing that Ronald Reagan’s press secretary and other members of his administration laughed while talking about the “gay plague.”
In the U.S., the groups most heavily impacted by HIV are:
Other people of color, including Native American/indigenous people
People living with disabilities
People living in southeastern states
Just as rampant queerphobia killed people with HIV during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, racism and other inequalities continue to make HIV an illness that runs rampant in communities of color, especially Black communities.
Once again, there is nothing inherent about being Black that makes one more prone to HIV. Rather, institutional racism, lack of access to quality health care, lack of sex education, mass incarceration, and other symptoms of structural racism make HIV a greater threat for Black Americans.
FACT: You Can’t Get HIV From a Mosquito Bite. Or a Swimming Pool. Or Sharing Food. Or ...
You may have heard about someone who knew a guy who knew someone who got HIV from a toilet seat. Or, perhaps you were just never taught the realities of HIV transmission risk in school. But all of those strange transmissions you’ve heard about are not real. Seriously: All of them.
In order for HIV to transmit from one person to another, two things need to come into contact with one another: a bodily fluid that contains HIV and direct access to a person’s bloodstream.
The most common entry points for HIV are an opening in the skin (like a cut or a puncture wound) or a mucous membrane (like a vagina or anus). And the most common HIV-containing bodily fluids are blood, semen, presemen (aka precum), rectal fluid, and vaginal fluid. This means that you can potentially get HIV through anal sex, injecting drugs, and vaginal sex.
HIV is not found in saliva, tears, or urine, which means that you can’t get HIV from things like mosquitoes, sharing food or water, toilet seats, or kissing.
FACT: If You’re in a Monogamous Relationship, You Can Still Get HIV
HIV stirs up a lot of intense emotions in people. Which makes sense: As we’ve said, the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were devastating in the U.S. and left many people traumatized in known and unknown ways.
But sometimes, because of our negative feelings about the virus, we sometimes associate it with negative behaviors, like cheating on a sexual partner you’re committed to. Hell, some people in popular culture even like to use this as a plot point again and again.
Regardless of how TV or film may blow things out of proportion, the fact is there is nothing inherent about being in a relationship that can protect you from HIV. Faithfulness questions aside, a person can live with HIV for many years without showing any symptoms—and potentially even without knowing they have it.
The best way to know if someone has HIV is to get tested. So, before entering into a relationship with someone, it might be wise to talk to them about getting tested—either together or separately, whichever makes you both more comfortable.
Communication is the best prevention tool. Talk about your sex life, talk about your health. And, if you happen to be in an open or non-monogamous relationship, make sure you’re talking to your partner about whether you may have been exposed to any sexually transmitted infections.
FACT: Alternative Medicines Can’t Replace HIV Medications
Over the years, a long list of candidates has emerged for forms of therapy that could potentially be helpful for people living with HIV: Coconut milk, vitamin C, yoga, and homeopathy, just to name a few.
While some of these complementary therapies—supplements, exercises, and the like—can be a good part of a holistic health approach, nothing can take the place of antiretroviral treatment. HIV medications are the only thing that’s been reliably proven to keep virus levels undetectable and strengthen the immune system of people living with HIV.
Storied HIV expert Robert Frascino, M.D., put it best in a classic article he wrote years ago debunking alternative medicines—an article that’s as relevant today as it was back then: “Simply put, alternative medicine (taking an alternate treatment in place of combination antiretroviral treatment—as opposed to complementary therapies taken alongside antiretrovirals, and under the supervision of an HIV physician specialist) uses therapies that are unproven, usually anecdotal, frequently deceptive and often downright dangerous.”
That doesn’t mean that all supplements or complementary therapies are snake oil. But anything you put into your body should be done only after you’ve consulted your health care provider. This isn’t just because they can help assess the safety of that therapy, but also because they can help ensure it doesn’t interact dangerously with your HIV treatment.
People living with HIV are much more likely than the average person to be taking several types of drugs at the same time (also known as polypharmacy. This can already put them at a higher risk for drug interactions, which can lead to serious health dangers. Adding complementary therapies to the mix can potentially increase that risk, so keep your care provider (and your pharmacist!) informed before you start taking them.
We've got you covered on the most important info regarding HIV medications, finding mental/social support, working with a health care team, using natural/complementary therapies, and the search for an HIV cure.
FACT: If You’re on Birth Control, You Can Still Get HIV
Birth control pills are great at stopping unwanted pregnancies, but they have no efficacy when it comes to stopping any virus, including HIV.
If you’re looking for a once-a-day pill that can prevent HIV, you’re probably thinking about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. And while PrEP does prevent HIV, that protection doesn’t go the other way: People using PrEP won’t find themselves protected against pregnancy.
The only technology that protects against both HIV and pregnancy is the condom. So if you aren’t on either pill and are looking for a way to lessen your risk of acquiring HIV or having a baby, condoms might be a good way to go.
FACT: You Can Safely Have a Baby If You’re HIV Positive
The process is pretty simple: If a person living with HIV becomes pregnant, they continue taking their HIV meds if they are already on them. (Sometimes a regimen change may be recommended; an HIV care provider can help determine whether that’s a good move.) If they are not already on HIV meds, becoming pregnant then becomes a critical moment to start treatment.
Not only can a person living with HIV safely become pregnant and give birth to an HIV-negative child, but an HIV-negative person with an HIV-positive partner can also have a child free of HIV at birth, as well—and can do so without putting themselves at any risk for infection. More of the magic of undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U) at work!