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reviewed 06/18/18

How HIV spreads: Myth or fact?

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can infect anyone—and there is no cure. However, by learning how the virus can and cannot be spread, everyone can take steps to prevent HIV transmission.

Myth or fact: HIV can travel through the air, like a cold or the flu.

Myth. HIV is not spread through air or water. It also isn't spread through casual contact, such as shaking hands, hugging or sharing eating utensils. It can only be spread through direct contact with an infected person's bodily fluids, such as blood or semen.

Myth or fact: HIV can be spread through saliva, such as by kissing.

Myth. HIV is not spread through saliva. It's possible for HIV to be spread by open-mouthed, deep kissing, but only if the infected person has sores or bleeding gums and blood is exchanged. However, it's exceedingly rare for HIV to spread by kissing alone.

Myth or fact: Mothers can spread HIV to their newborns.

Fact. Women infected with HIV can pass the virus on to their babies during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

Myth or fact: You can spread HIV by sharing needles with someone who is infected with the virus.

Fact. If you have HIV, you can spread it to others by sharing needles and other equipment used for injecting drugs. You can also transmit other infections, like hepatitis C, by sharing drug equipment. And hepatitis C can cause more damage more quickly in someone with HIV.

Myth or fact: Along with sharing needles, sexual intercourse is the most common way that HIV is spread.

Fact. The riskiest kind of sex for spreading HIV is anal sex. Vaginal sex is the second riskiest type of sex. While oral sex is less risky, the virus can still be spread this way. Using condoms or dental dams can help prevent HIV from being spread in all of these types of intercourse.

Myth or fact: There are no medications to help prevent the spread of HIV.

Myth. While there is no cure for the virus, taking HIV medications can lower the risk that you might transmit the virus to someone else. In addition, people who are at risk of contracting HIV may be able to take a daily pill, known as PrEP, to help lower that threat.

Don't wait for symptoms to develop to find out if you have HIV. If you think you've been exposed to the virus, ask your doctor to give you an HIV test.

Find out more about the HIV test

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; HIV.gov

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