HIV Transmission

Understanding HIV Transmission - How HIV is Passed from Person to Person

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How is HIV Transmitted between People?

HIV can only be transmitted from one partner to another by way of a few select bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids and breast milk from an HIV positive individual. The fluids listed need to come into contact with mucus membranes, damaged tissue, or directly injected into a person’s bloodstream via a non-sterile syringe or needle.

  • As an HIV positive individual’s viral load decreases, their chances of passing on the disease decrease as well. This is a strong reason why early testing, early diagnosis, and a strict antiretroviral therapy regimen is so important!
  • Though homosexual men are still among the highest demographic for HIV transmission in the United States, cases of infected female to female transmission are very rare in comparison.
HIV Transmission

Unprotected Sex

In the US, receptive anal sex is the highest risk behavior for HIV transmission, anal sex being the highest risk activity. Vaginal sex is less risky, but unprotected vaginal sex with an HIV positive partner is still a very high risk behavior.

Oral Sex (Rare)

Though transmission is possible, it’s very rare for partners to contract HIV during oral sex. In theory, it’s possible if the HIV positive man ejaculates in the woman’s/partner’s mouth, or if both parties exchange blood from open sores.

Infected Blood Transfusions

It’s possible to transmit HIV through infected blood transfusions or infected organ transplants, although this type of transmission has become very rare. Where this type of transmission was more common during the early years (mid 80’s) of HIV, blood donations and organ transplants are always very thoroughly screened these days.

Dirty/ Non-Sterile Needles

Since HIV is transmitted via blood, sharing needles/syringes with an infected person can easily cause infection. Believe it or not, HIV can live in a used needle for up to 42 days! 100% sterile needles are only found in a sterile medical environment, and only used once before being disposed of.

Pre-Chewed Food

This circumstance has only ever been known among mother/infants, and is obviously a very rare circumstance. When infected blood from a caregiver’s/mother’s mouth mixes with food while chewing, the chances of spreading HIV rise.

Bite Wounds

HIV can be spread if bitten by a person positive for the disease. There were only a limited number of cases, and each involved severe tissue damage leading to open wounds. There haven’t been any cases of transmission when the skin hasn’t been broken.


HIV can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or be transmitted from the mother to the child when breastfeeding, though this is a less common method of transmission compared to those above.

Today, any physician will recommend simple testing to ensure the mother does not have an infection, and be able to properly prepare if she does. Quick treatment and early detection has drastically lowered the amount of babies born in the US with the virus.

Contaminated Objects

It’s possible to contract the virus from an accidental (contaminated) needle stick, or a scrape from a sharp object with contaminated blood on it. This risk lies mainly with health care workers, however.

HIV Can’t Be Transmitted By or Contracted From:

  • Saliva, sweat or tears
  • Water or air
  • Insects or pets
  • Toilet surfaces, food & drinks
  • Closed mouth kissing
    • It is extremely rare for HIV to be transmitted by open mouth kissing, and only if the HIV positive party has open, bleeding sores in their mouth. The virus can’t be transmitted via saliva.

HIV Outside of the Body

Though HIV can live within a dirty/used needle for up to 40+ days in certain conditions, it doesn’t survive well outside the body, and can’t reproduce without a human host. The virus can’t be transmitted, transferred or spread by:

  • Insects, such as mosquitos, lice or ticks
  • Saliva, sweat or tears
  • Unbroken skin to skin contact, such as hugging or shaking hands
  • On the surface of clothing, without the presence of blood
    • HIV can’t be spread either to or contracted from any animals (outside of humans) or pets.
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