How is HIV Transmitted?

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How is HIV and AIDS transmitted? The truth is you can't "catch" AIDS. It's the most advanced stage of HIV, and if you don't seek HIV treatment, the virus attacks your immune system until you eventually develop AIDS.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) can be a life-threatening condition caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). HIV infection damages your immune system, meaning your body won't be able to fight disease and infection.

HIV is an STI (sexually transmitted infection). However, HIV transmission can also happen through infected blood, semen, or from a mother to her baby during pregnancy or breast milk during feeding.

Although there isn't a cure for it, HIV medicine can slow the progression of your condition dramatically, giving you a better quality of life and preventing you from developing AIDS.

Being aware of the symptoms and transmission of HIV, as well as preventative measures, means you have a much better chance of avoiding catching this dangerous disease. But how do you catch HIV? Can it be spread through kissing or cuts and scrapes?

This article contains all the information you need about AIDS and HIV prevention and treatment. For more advice about how HIV is spread, be sure to read along.

Can You Catch AIDS From Kissing?

HIV and AIDS are not easy to pass from person to person; they can't spread through the air like flu, viruses and colds. HIV lives in the blood supply of infected people and also in certain body fluids.

To contract HIV, one of these body fluids from someone infected with HIV will have to enter your blood:

  • Breast milk
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Menstrual blood
  • Semen
  • Blood

Other bodily fluids such as urine, sweat, and saliva don't contain enough of the disease to spread it to another person.

HIV is not transmitted through social or closed-mouth kissing with someone infected with the virus. It's also unlikely you'll get human immunodeficiency virus through oral sex either as there won't be enough of the virus in the saliva.

If both you and your partner have bleeding gums or sores, there is a risk of transmission through open-mouth kissing. However, this is very rare, and blood from the HIV infected person would need to get into the bloodstream of the HIV-negative person.

HIV can't survive very long or reproduce outside the human body. It can't be transmitted:

  • By ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects
  • Through tears, saliva, or sweat
  • By shaking hands, hugging, or sharing things such as toilets and utensils with an HIV positive person.
  • Through sexual activity that doesn't result in you exchanging bodily fluids with the infected person, such as touching.

Is HIV Transmitted by Sharing Cigarettes?

No, you can't get HIV from a shared cigarette because there wouldn't be enough of the virus in the saliva to transmit it. This is also why it can't be transmitted through sharing cutlery and other cooking utensils.

If there was dried or old blood on the cigarette, don't worry. It's not possible to transmit the virus this way because it can't survive for long outside of its human host. If there was fresh blood on the cigarette and you had an open sore or area in your mouth, it's possible you could catch the virus.

But, this kind of transmission isn't seen very often. It's most commonly spread through vaginal or anal sex or from sharing injecting equipment.

Hundreds of household studies where families were living with people who had HIV showed that the virus was only spread through sexual contact, sharing needles, or coming into contact with infected blood.

The Ways In Which AIDS Spreads

HIV infection can only happen through certain activities. You can only catch it if infected semen, blood, or vaginal fluids enter your body. In the UK, most cases are caused by:

  • Having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person who has a detectable viral load. Anal sexual activity carries a higher risk than vaginal sex
  • Using shared needles to inject drugs with a person who has HIV

Anal sexual activity is considered the highest risk for catching and transmitting HIV. There's even an 18 times greater chance of contracting HIV through anal sex than vaginal sexual activity.

The reason for this increased risk is to do with the fragile nature of the rectal tissues. This allows the HIV to get straight into the bloodstream through small abrasions and tears. The rectal tissues are very delicate, so they provide access to the bloodstream even when they're undamaged.

Another known risk is the high concentration of the virus in semen, which doubles the risk of HIV with each one digit rise in someone's viral load.

HIV can also be passed from a woman to her baby during pregnancy, labour, and breastfeeding. This is known as perinatal transmission. However, this is less common thanks to the advancement of HIV prevention methods and treatment.

Being born with HIV is how children commonly get it, and it's recommended that all pregnant women are tested for HIV. Giving HIV medicine such as antiretroviral therapy to women who test positive has lowered the number of children born with the virus.

Am I Risking HIV Infection By Having Anal Or Vaginal Sex?

You can contract HIV if you have vaginal sexual activity with an HIV-positive person without a condom or HIV treatment to prevent the virus. Vaginal sexual activity carries less risk than receptive anal penetration; however, both partners can catch the virus during vaginal penetration.

Most women who contract HIV get it from vaginal penetration. The virus can enter a woman's body through the inner linings of the vagina and cervix. Male partners can also get HIV during vaginal penetration.

This is because blood and vaginal fluid can contain HIV. Men can get HIV through the tip of the penis, the foreskin if it's uncircumcised or through small scratches, cuts, or open sores on the penis.

It's estimated that the risk of getting HIV through receptive anal sexual activity is 1.4%, while the risk through insertive sex (being the person on top) is 0.11%.

On the other hand, it's been found that the risk of HIV transmission through receptive vaginal penetration was 0.08% and 0.04% for insertive sex. Ultimately, practising safe sex methods can substantially reduce your risk of catching the virus.

HIV Infection Prevention

There isn't a vaccine for HIV, and there's no cure for AIDS, but there are plenty of steps you can take to protect yourself and your partner(s) from becoming infected.

To prevent HIV from spreading:

  • Use HIV treatments as prevention: If you've tested positive for HIV, taking HIV medicine can prevent your partner from being infected. Using effective treatment means you'll have an undetectable viral load which means you can't transmit it to anyone else.
  • Take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) once you've had exposure to HIV: If you suspect that you've come into contact with the virus, speak to your doctor or go to A&E. Taking PEP as soon as you can in the first 3 days can greatly decrease your risk of infection.
  • Use a condom during sex: One of the easiest ways of preventing HIV is to use a condom every time you engage in sexual activity. If you use lubricant, be sure to use a water-based one as oil-based lubes can weaken the condom, causing it to break and leaving you at risk of infection.
  • PrEp (Pre-exposure prophylaxis): The combination of drugs Truvada and Descovy can reduce the chance of catching HIV in high-risk people.

It's important to realise your doctor will only prescribe these drugs if you're not already infected with HIV. You'll need to take an HIV test before you start the course of PrEp and then every 3 months while you're taking the medication.

You'll also have a kidney function test before you're prescribed Truvada, and this will be done every 6 months. You'll need to take the medicine every day.

Keep in mind; they don't offer protection against other STIs, so you'll still have to practise safe sex. If you've got hepatitis B, you should be checked by a specialist before you start therapy.


What is the best method to prevent HIV transmission?

The best and only way of completely preventing HIV, or any STIs, is abstaining from anal, vaginal, or oral sex. However, this isn't realistic because nearly everyone will have some form of sexual activity at some point in their life.

Practising methods of safe sex is your best chance against catching HIV. Always use condoms whenever you have sex and never share needles with anyone. Taking advantage of the preventative medicines PrEp and PEP will also offer effective protection against HIV.

Even if you are HIV-positive, there are many steps you can take to avoid infecting others. Antiretroviral therapy can decrease the amount of human immunodeficiency virus in your blood. This makes your viral load so low it can't be detected by tests.

If you have HIV and you maintain an undetectable viral load (or remain virally suppressed), you'll be able to live a long and healthy life. You're considered virally suppressed when you have under 200 copies of the virus per millilitre of blood.

If you have an undetectable viral load, there's little to no chance that you'll spread HIV to other people through sex.

Does anal sex increase the risk of developing HIV and AIDS?

Having anal sexual activity is the riskiest form of sex you can have for transmitting HIV. Being the bottom (receptive) partner puts you at a higher risk for catching HIV than being the top (insertive) partner.

However, there is still some risk to being the insertive partner because the virus can enter the body through the tip of the penis or urethra or small scratches and cuts in the skin.

What is the best way to find out if I have HIV?

Because the symptoms of HIV may not appear for years, the only way to find out if you have it is to get tested. If you suspect you've been infected, you must go for a test as soon as possible.

You can order home testing kits through Luud Health. Order your home STI test kit for HIV here.

Can AIDS be transmitted via broken skin?

There is a risk of transmission if infected blood from someone with a detectable viral load gets in contact with broken skin, such as a cut.

This gives the virus access to the other person's bloodstream, therefore infecting them. If the blood makes contact with unbroken skin, there's no risk.

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