Despite growing knowledge and decreasing stigma surrounding HIV, it seems that many people still believe common myths about the transmission of HIV. For transmission of HIV to occur, three conditions must be present. There must first be the presence of an HIV-positive bodily fluid – that is, blood, semen, pre-cum, vaginal/front hole fluids, anal fluids, or breast milk. Secondly, there must be an activity which presents a risk of HIV transmission, such as sharing needles or unprotected sex. Finally, there must be an entry point to the bloodstream, like an open wound or cut, or mucous membranes like those in the anus. This is often conceptualised as an equation:
Bodily fluid with high presence of HIV + particular activity + entry point to bloodstream
Given these conditions, let’s talk about ways you cannot, or are extremely unlikely to, contract HIV.
- You cannot contract HIV from touching or hugging someone living with HIV, as the virus dies once outside the body. This might seem simple, but there is history of police wearing gloves when arresting HIV activists, which definitely demonstrates that there is a fear of contracting HIV through touch.
- You cannot contract HIV from sharing food and drink, as there is not enough HIV present in saliva for transmission to occur. In fact, there has never been a recorded case of HIV transmission through saliva. This also means there is no risk of contracting HIV from being sneezed or coughed on.
- Similarly, sweat, tears, urine and faeces are all bodily fluids which cannot transmit HIV.
- You cannot contract HIV from a toilet seat. In dried fluid, HIV can only live for a matter of minutes, plus there is no entry point to your bloodstream.
- You cannot contract HIV from a swimming pool as HIV does not survive in water.
- You cannot contract HIV from a mosquito bite. Mosquitos only inject saliva into humans when they bite, and HIV is unable to survive in a mosquito.
- You cannot contract HIV from kissing someone with HIV. Since HIV is not transmissible through saliva, both people would have to have open sores in their mouths and be kissing very deeply for there to even be a small risk.
- You are extremely unlikely to contract HIV from fingering or hand jobs. Once again, a person would have to have open wounds on their hands for there to even be a tiny risk.
- You are extremely unlikely to contract HIV from receiving oral sex, as there is no entry point to your bloodstream unless you have a cut or sore on your genitals, and there is no HIV-positive fluid from your partner’s mouth.
- You are also unlikely to contract HIV from giving oral sex, although the risk is higher than receiving. To decrease risk of transmission, it’s recommended to wait for half an hour after brushing your teeth or flossing, or to simply use a barrier like a condom or dental dam.
And to cap off, the three most common ways that HIV can be transmitted:
- Unprotected penis-in-vagina/front hole sex
- Unprotected penis-in-anus sex
- Sharing injecting drug equipment
Two ways to prevent HIV transmission are getting tested to know your HIV status, and engaging in safe sex. What ‘safe sex’ looks like can depend on a variety of factors, including status, viral load and specific sex acts, and could involve pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) (read about it in YEP Crew Matthew’s blog here), antiretroviral therapy, condoms, dental dams, or a combination of these things.
It’s important to remember that low or no risk activities don’t negate a need for barrier protection like condoms, as transmission of other STIs is still possible. Conversely, it’s important not to spread fear about HIV transmission – for example, risk of contracting HIV from unprotected receptive anal sex is less than 2% per specific incident. What this all means is that it’s very possible to have a happy and safe relationship with anyone you meet who is living with HIV.