How You Can and Cannot be infected with HIV
Ever had a cold and no-one wants to go near you in case they catch it? Well, like a cold, HIV is a virus, but you can’t become infected with it in the same way. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.
For many years now, there has been a lot of publicity and education work undertaken to teach people the ways in which they might be at risk of HIV transmission. In spite of this, some of the messages have been mixed and occasionally contradictory, and there is still some confusion about what is safe and what is not. This section will clear up some of the myths.
Many people are concerned about whether certain situations could result in someone becoming infected. Worries about the possibilities of infection lead to people with HIV being very isolated and sometimes resulted in prejudice and paranoia. HIV is a virus that is found in blood and other body fluids such as semen and vaginal fluids. It can’t live for long outside the body, so to be infected with HIV you need to allow some body fluid from an infected person to get inside your body.
The most common ways that people become infected with HIV are:
by having sexual intercourse with an infected partner
by injecting drugs using a needle or syringe which has already been used by someone who is infected.
HIV can be passed on in both these ways because the virus is present in the sexual fluids and blood of infected people. If infected blood or sexual fluid gets into your body, then you can become infected.
You can get HIV from…
HIV is found in the sexual fluids of an infected person. For a man, this means in the fluids which come out of the penis before and during sex. For a woman, it means HIV is in the fluids produced by the vagina before and during sex to help make intercourse easier.
If a man with HIV has vaginal intercourse without a condom, infected fluid can pass into the woman’s blood stream through a tiny cut or sore inside her body. Such a cut or sore wouldn’t always be visible, and could be so small that the woman wouldn’t know about it.
If a woman with HIV has sexual intercourse without a condom, HIV could get into the man’s blood through a sore patch on his penis or by getting into the tube that runs down the penis.
If there is any contact with blood during sex, this increases the risk of infection. For example, there may be blood in the vagina if intercourse occurs during a woman’s period.
Oral sex with an infected partner does carry some risk of infection. If a person sucks on the penis of an infected man, for example, infected fluid could get into the mouth. The virus could then get into the blood if you have bleeding gums or tiny sores or ulcers somewhere in the mouth.
The same is true if infected sexual fluids from a woman get into the mouth of her partner.
But infection from oral sex alone seems to be very rare, and there are things you can do to protect yourself.
If a couple have anal intercourse the risk of infection is greater than with vaginal intercourse. The lining of the anus is more delicate than the lining of the vagina, so it’s more likely to be damaged during intercourse, and any contact with blood during sex increases the risk of infection.
There is a good likelihood of becoming infected with HIV if you share injecting equipment with someone who has the virus. The virus can be passed by sharing needles, syringes, spoons, filters and water. Disinfecting equipment between use can reduce the chance of transmission, but doesn’t eliminate it.
Some people have been infected through a transfusion of infected blood. These days, in most countries all the blood used for transfusions is now tested for HIV. In those countries where the blood has been tested, HIV infection through blood transfusions is now extremely rare.
Blood products, such as those used by people with Haemophilia, are now heat-treated to make them safe.
Mother to child transmission
An infected pregnant woman can pass the virus on to her unborn baby either before or during birth. HIV can also be passed on during breastfeeding.
If a woman knows that she is infected with HIV, there are drugs that she can take to greatly reduce the chances of her child becoming infected.
Infection in the health-care setting
Some health-care workers have become infected with HIV by being stuck with needles containing HIV-infected blood. A very few have become infected by HIV-infected blood getting into the health-care worker’s bloodstream through an open cut or splashes into a mucous membrane (e.g. eyes or the inside of the nose).
There have only been a few documented instances of patients becoming infected by a health-care worker.
Tattoos / piercings
Anything which allows another person’s body fluids to get inside your body is risky. If the equipment is not sterile, having a tattoo done could carry a very small risk. If you are thinking of having a tattoo or piercing, ask staff at the shop what procedures they take to avoid infection.
You can’t get AIDS from…
At the moment, scientific opinion is pretty clear that you cannot become infected with HIV through kissing.
To become infected with HIV you must get a sufficient quantity of HIV into the bloodstream. Saliva does contain HIV, but the virus is only present in very small quantities and as such, cannot cause HIV infection.
Unless both partners have large open sores in their mouths, or severely bleeding gums, there is no transmission risk from mouth-to-mouth kissing.
Sneezing, coughing, sharing glasses/cups, etc
HIV is unable to reproduce outside its living host, except under very extreme laboratory conditions. HIV does not survive well in the open air, and this makes the possibility of this type of environmental transmission remote. In practice no environmental transmission has been seen.
This means that HIV cannot be transmitted through spitting, sneezing, sharing glasses or musical instruments.
You also can’t be infected in swimming pools, showers or by sharing washing machines or toilet seats.
Studies conducted by many researchers have shown no evidence of HIV transmission through insects, even in areas where there are many cases of AIDS and large populations of insects such as mosquitoes. Lack of such outbreaks, despite considerable efforts to detect them, supports the conclusion that HIV is not transmitted by insects.
Also, HIV only lives for a short time and does not reproduce in an insect. So, even if the virus enters a mosquito or another sucking or biting insect, the insect does not become infected and therefore cannot transmit HIV to the next human it feeds on or bites.
Injecting with sterile needles
Drug use with sterile works will not transmit HIV either, as long as clean works are used every time – this means needle, syringe and spoon, water and filters. There are still many other risks associated with injecting drug use. And, if you are on drugs, even alcohol, this may cloud your judgment and make you more likely to become involved in risky sexual behaviour – it’s harder to make the effort to use a condom when you’re off your head.
Condoms, if used correctly and consistently, are highly effective at preventing HIV transmission. There are myths saying that "some very small viruses can pass through latex" – this is not true.
Anal sex is not necessarily a risk if unbroken condoms are used and there is no blood-to-blood contact. You can’t "create" HIV by having anal sex.
Note: This information is cross-posted and slightly adapted from AVERT.org in order to emphasize some aspects refering particulary to Moldova. For more details, visual adds, updated information and primary sources, please visit AVERT.org web page.