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How do you get HIV?

Graphic showing the ways HIV can be transmitted

FAST FACTS

  • You can only get HIV through certain bodily fluids of an infected person (e.g. blood, semen, breast milk).
  • HIV can be transmitted during unprotected sex; through sharing injecting equipment; from mother-to-baby during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding; and through contaminated blood transfusions.
  • HIV cannot survive outside the body. It cannot be spread through the air, from touching, toilet seats or shared cutlery.
  • Using condoms during sex, or taking PrEP consistently will protect you from HIV infection through sex.
  • Taking HIV treatment if you are a new or expectant mother, and avoiding shared injecting equipment if you use drugs, will also protect you and those around you from HIV.

Despite what you may have heard, there are only a few ways you can get HIV. Here, we explain the ways you can get it and how to protect yourself from HIV infection.

How can you get HIV?

HIV lives in the following bodily fluids of an infected person:

  • blood
  • semen and pre-seminal fluid (“pre-cum”)
  • rectal fluids/anal mucous
  • vaginal fluids
  • breast milk.

To get infected, these bodily fluids need to get into your blood through a mucous membrane (for example the lining of the vagina, rectum, the opening of the penis, or the mouth), breaks in the skin (like cuts), or be injected directly into your bloodstream.

Other bodily fluids, like saliva, sweat or urine, don't contain enough of the virus to transmit it to another person.

A person living with HIV can pass the virus to others whether they have symptoms or not. People with HIV are most infectious in the first few weeks after infection. People living with HIV who have an ‘undetectable’ viral load cannot pass on HIV through sex.

The main ways you can get HIV are:

Sex without a condom

Sharing injecting equipment

  • sharing needles, syringes or other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs with someone who has HIV.

Passed from mother-to-baby during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding

  • a mother infected with HIV can pass the virus to her baby via her blood during pregnancy and birth, and through her breast milk when breastfeeding.

Contaminated blood transfusions and organ/tissue transplants

If adequate safety practices are not in place, healthcare workers can also be at risk of HIV from cuts made by a needle or sharp object (needlestick injury) with infected blood on it. However, the risk of ‘occupational exposure’, is very low in most countries. 

If you think you have put yourself at risk of HIV, the only way to find out if you have HIV is to have an HIV test.

How can’t you get HIV?

There are many myths about HIV. Some people wrongly believe that HIV can be spread through the air (even though HIV can’t survive outside the body). HIV can’t be spread by touching toilet seats or from mosquito bites either.

See our page on HIV myths for more information.

How do I protect myself from HIV?

There are a number of ways you can protect yourself from HIV, including:

  • using a condom every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex
  • in some countries PrEP is available. This is a course of HIV drugs which if taken consistently as advised by your healthcare professional prevents HIV infection through sex
  • avoiding sharing needles, syringes and other injecting equipment with anyone if you take drugs
  • taking HIV treatment if you are a new or expectant mother living with HIV, as this can dramatically reduce the risk of passing HIV to your baby during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding
  • asking your healthcare professional if the blood product you are receiving (blood transfusion, organ or tissue transplant) has been tested for HIV
  • taking precautions if you are a healthcare worker, such as wearing protection (like gloves and goggles), washing hands after contact with blood and other bodily fluids, and safely disposing of sharp equipment.

For more detailed information on how to prevent HIV infection visit the relevant page from the listed below:

Unprotected sex and HIV

Sharing needles to inject drugs and HIV

Pregnancy, childbirth & breastfeeding and HIV

Working in healthcare and HIV

Blood transfusions & organ/tissue transplants and HIV

Photo credit: Copyright AVERT

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Last full review: 
20 December 2017
Next full review: 
20 December 2020
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Last updated:
19 April 2018
Last full review:
20 December 2017
Next full review:
20 December 2020