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HIV Prevention

The Basics of HIV Prevention

(Last updated 9/23/2014; last reviewed 9/23/2014)

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Key Points

  • HIV is spread through contact with the blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, or breast milk from a person infected with HIV.
  • In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by having sex or sharing injection drug equipment, such as needles, with someone who has HIV. 
  • To reduce your risk of HIV infection, use condoms correctly every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Don’t inject drugs. If you do, use only sterile injection equipment and water and never share your equipment with others.
  • Treatment with HIV medicines (called antiretroviral therapy or ART for short) helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. Although ART can reduce the risk of HIV transmission, it’s still important to use condoms during sex.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is spread through contact with the certain body fluids from a person infected with HIV:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-seminal fluids
  • Rectal fluids
  • Vaginal fluids
The spread of HIV from person to person is called HIV transmission.  

In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by having sex or sharing injection drug equipment, such as needles, with someone who has HIV.

HIV can also pass from an HIV-infected woman to her child during pregnancy, childbirth (also called labor and delivery), or breastfeeding. This spread of HIV is called mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

In the past, some people were infected with HIV after receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant from an HIV-infected donor. Today, this risk is very low because the supply of donated blood and organs is carefully tested in the United States.

You can’t get HIV by shaking hands with, hugging, or closed-mouth kissing a person infected with HIV. And you can’t get HIV from contact with objects such as toilet seats, doorknobs, or dishes used by a person infected with HIV.

How can I reduce my risk of getting HIV?

Anybody can get HIV, but you can take steps to protect yourself from HIV infection.

  • Get tested and know your partner’s HIV status. Talk to your partner about HIV testing and get tested before you have sex.
  • Have less risky sex. Oral sex is much less risky than anal or vaginal sex. Anal sex is the most risky type of sex for the spread of HIV.
  • Use condoms. Use a condom every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Read this fact sheet on how to use condoms correctly.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners. If you have more than one sexual partner, get tested for HIV regularly. Get tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and insist that your partners do, too. Having an STI can increase your risk of becoming infected with HIV.
  • Talk to your health care provider about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is an HIV prevention method that involves taking an HIV medicine every day. PrEP is intended for people who don’t have HIV but who are at high risk of sexually transmitted HIV infection. PrEP should always be combined with other prevention methods, including condom use.
  • Don’t inject drugs. But if you do, use only sterile drug injection equipment and water and never share your equipment with others.

I am HIV positive but my partner is HIV negative. How can I protect my partner from HIV?

Take HIV medicines daily. Treatment with HIV medicines (called antiretroviral therapy or ART for short) helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. ART can’t cure HIV infection but it can reduce the amount of HIV in the body. Having less HIV in your body will reduce your risk of passing HIV to your partner during sex. For added protection, you can also talk to your partner about taking PrEP. 

To protect your partner, use condoms correctly every time you have sex. Even if you are taking HIV medicines, remember it’s still important to use condoms. 

If you inject drugs, don’t share your needles, syringes, or other drug equipment with your partner.

To learn more, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website on HIV prevention.

Are HIV medicines used in other situations to prevent HIV infection?

Yes, HIV medicines are also used for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

  • Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) 
    PEP is the use of HIV medicine to reduce the risk of HIV infection after a possible exposure to HIV. PEP may be used, for example, after a person has sex without a condom with a person who is infected with HIV or after a health care worker is accidentally exposed to HIV in the workplace. To be effective, PEP must be started within 3 days after the possible exposure to HIV.  
  • Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV 
    Pregnant HIV-infected women take HIV medicines during pregnancy and childbirth to reduce the risk of passing HIV to their babies. Their newborn babies also receive HIV medicine for 6 weeks after birth. The HIV medicine reduces the risk of infection from HIV that may have entered a baby’s body during childbirth. HIV-infected women living in the United States should not breastfeed their babies. In the United States, baby formula is a safe and healthy alternative to breast milk. 

How can I learn more about preventing HIV?

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