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HIV Myths and Misconceptions

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2024 | Last updated: March 2024

About 1.2 million people currently live with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Sadly, myths and misconceptions about HIV are common. A lot of these misconceptions about HIV are based off stigma and fear-based misinformation.1

In order to promote accurate information and reduce stigma, it is crucial to dispel these common myths and misconceptions.

Myth: HIV can be transmitted through casual contact

A common misconception is that HIV can be spread through everyday interactions like shaking hands, touching surfaces, and sharing utensils. Some viruses, like the common cold and flu, can live on surfaces for days and still be infectious. But this is not the case for HIV.2

HIV is primarily transmitted through:1,2

  • Unprotected sex with someone who has HIV
  • Sharing needles with a person who has HIV (even if the needle has not been used in a long time)
  • Pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding from an HIV-positive birth parent

HIV cannot be transmitted through casual contact, such as:2

  • Shaking hands
  • Touching surfaces like door handles, phones, etc.
  • Using public toilet seats
  • Sharing utensils and dishes

Myth: You can get HIV from touching, hugging, or kissing someone with the virus

HIV is not found in saliva, tears, or sweat. This means that casual contact such as shaking hands, hugging, sharing drinks or food, and closed-mouth kissing will not transmit the virus.1,2

HIV is transmitted only through contact with bodily fluids that could contain the virus. These fluids include:1,2

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
  • Vaginal fluid
  • Rectal fluid
  • Breast milk

For HIV to be transmitted, these fluids must contain the virus and come in contact with an HIV-negative person’s mucus membrane or a break in their skin. Mucus membranes are areas such as:1,2

  • The mouth
  • The rectum
  • The vagina
  • Other body cavity linings

Myth: There is a cure for HIV

There is currently no cure for HIV. But there are treatments available to treat and control it. The current standard of care for HIV in the United States is treatment with antiretroviral therapy, also called ART.1,3,4

Getting treatment with ART can:1,3,4

  • Reduce symptoms
  • Reduce the viral load (a measure of how much HIV is in the body)
  • Reduce the risk of transmission

Once a person has been diagnosed with HIV, they have it for life. Thankfully, with advancements in medical science, HIV is no longer the dire threat it once was. ART has significantly improved the prognosis for people living with HIV.1,4

When taken consistently, ART can suppress the virus to undetectable levels. This means that the amount of HIV in the blood is so low that the virus is not detected when tested. In this way, ART allows people with HIV to live long and healthy lives. But early diagnosis and proper medical care are crucial for managing HIV effectively.1,4

Myth: If you have HIV, you automatically will get AIDS

Having HIV does not automatically mean that a person has or will have AIDS. But when HIV is left untreated for many years, it can develop into AIDS. AIDS is the final stage of HIV diagnosis and the most severe.1,4

AIDS leads to a badly damaged immune system. This makes people more susceptible to opportunistic infections (OIs). But with prompt and consistent treatment, HIV and risk for AIDS and OIs can be controlled.1,4

Myth: If both partners have HIV, they do not have to use a condom

People who are HIV-positive can still contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and herpes. It is always a good idea to use condoms to protect yourself from STIs.1

Myth: Mosquitoes carry HIV

Insects, including ticks and mosquitos, do not carry or transmit HIV. HIV needs human cells to replicate, which mosquitos and other insects do not have.5

This means HIV will die in a mosquito and be broken down in its digestive system before it can be passed on. While there are some illnesses that can be passed through insects, including malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, Lyme disease, and West Nile virus, HIV is not 1 of them.5

Myth: HIV only affects certain sexual orientations

Another common myth is that only certain groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, are at risk of contracting HIV. But HIV does not discriminate. HIV can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or lifestyle.1,2

Anal sex does carry the highest risk of transmitting the virus. But other behaviors, such as vaginal sex or sharing needles, can also lead to HIV transmission.1,2

Myth: You cannot get HIV from oral sex

Although the risk is very low, there is a risk of transmitting HIV during oral sex. Oral sex involves using the mouth to stimulate a partner’s genitals. It also may be called:6

  • Fellatio, blow job, giving head (when involving the penis)
  • Cunnilingus, eating out (when involving the vagina)
  • Rimming (when involving the anus)

Risk of transmitting HIV increases when:6

  • Sores are present in the mouth or on the genitals of one of the partners
  • Blood (including menstrual blood) is present
  • A male partner ejaculates into their partner’s mouth
  • Another sexually transmitted infection (STI) is present

Brushing your teeth before oral sex does not prevent the spread of HIV. Brushing or flossing before oral sex may actually cause bleeding or irritation, which could increase the risk of HIV transmission.6

Myth: There is no way for an HIV-positive person to be with an HIV-negative person without transmitting HIV

This is untrue. Anyone living with HIV can decrease their risk of transmitting the virus to others, including their sexual partners.1,4,6

The medicines involved in ART work to prevent the spread of HIV within the body. These medicines are intended to be used daily. If used as directed, they can help reduce a person’s viral load. Eventually, their viral load can become undetectable.1,4,6,7

Recent research suggests that those who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load have almost no risk of transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner. So, the risk of HIV transmission to an HIV-negative partner is greatly reduced when an HIV-positive partner is taking their ART medicines as prescribed.7

The risk of transmitting the virus also can be greatly reduced by using condoms and lubrication during sex. The condom provides a barrier for bodily fluids, and the lubrication helps prevent the condom from tearing.6

Finally, medicines known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can reduce the risk of transmission in the short term.8

Myth: PrEP is only for men who are gay

PrEP is a highly effective HIV prevention method that is not exclusive to gay men. PrEP is an important tool in the fight against HIV and is recommended for anyone who is at higher risk for contracting the virus.6,8

PrEP involves taking a daily oral medicine. When taken as prescribed, it reduces a person’s risk of getting HIV by about 99 percent. If you are constantly at a higher risk of getting HIV, PrEP may be beneficial. Find a PrEP provider close to you.6,8

Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is similar to PrEP, in that it helps reduce the chances of HIV spread. However, it is used after a potential exposure to the virus. PEP cannot be used in the long term. It should be used in emergencies only, such as after unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner or when a condom breaks. It must be used at least 72 hours after potential exposure.6,8

Education about HIV makes a difference

Debunking myths about HIV is essential to reduce stigma and the spread of misinformation. Understanding the facts about HIV transmission and life with the virus can help encourage regular testing and promote safe practices.1

Have questions about treatment, OIs, or how you can protect yourself and others from HIV transmission? Reach out to others in the HIV community, and make a plan to talk to your doctor.

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