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HIV Prevention

The Basics of HIV Prevention

(Last updated 9/27/2013; last reviewed 9/27/2013)

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Key Points

  • HIV is spread through contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk of a person infected with HIV.
  • The most common way to get HIV is by having unprotected sex with a person who has HIV. (Unprotected sex means not using a condom.) Another common way to get HIV is by sharing drug injection equipment (such as needles and syringes) with a person infected with 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 clean needles and equipment and don’t 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 blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk of a person infected with HIV. The spread of HIV from person to person is called HIV transmission.

The most common way to get HIV is by having unprotected sex with a person who has HIV. (Unprotected sex means not using a condom.) During unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex, HIV can enter the opening to the penis or the lining of the vagina, mouth, anus, or rectum. It can also enter through cuts and sores in the mouth or on the skin.

Another common way to get HIV is by sharing drug injection equipment (such as needles and syringes) with a person 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.

  • Don’t have sex. Abstinence (not having sex of any kind) is a sure way to avoid HIV infection through sexual contact.
  • Get tested and know your partner’s HIV status. Talk to your partner about HIV testing and get tested before you have sex.
  • Be faithful to your partner. If you and your partner are both HIV negative and have sex only with each other, you are not at risk of HIV infection through sexual contact.
  • 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.
  • Don’t inject drugs. But if you do, use only clean needles and equipment and don’t share your equipment with others.

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

To protect your partner, use condoms correctly every time you have sex. Don’t share sex toys, razor blades, toothbrushes, or other items that may have your blood or sexual fluids on them. If you inject drugs, don’t share your needles, syringes, or other drug equipment with your partner.

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 an HIV-infected person’s body. Having less HIV in the body reduces the risk of HIV transmission. 

If you aren’t already taking HIV medicines, talk to your health care provider about the benefits of ART for your health and to protect your partner from HIV. If you are taking HIV medicines, remember it’s still important to use condoms. 

To learn more, read this fact sheet: When One Partner is HIV+

Are HIV medicines used to prevent HIV infection?

Yes, in some situations HIV medicines are used to reduce the risk of HIV infection.

  • 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. 
  • Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) 
    PEP involves taking HIV medicines as soon as possible after exposure to HIV to reduce the risk of HIV infection. For example, a health care worker exposed to HIV in the workplace may require PEP. 
  • Prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV 
    HIV-infected women take HIV medicines during pregnancy and childbirth to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. To further reduce the risk, their newborn babies also receive HIV medicine for six weeks after birth. In the United States, women with HIV are counseled not to breastfeed their babies to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV in breast milk. 

How can I learn more about preventing HIV?

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