HIV Facts and Myths Dispelling AIDS Misconceptions

HIV Facts and Myths Dispelling AIDS Misconceptions

Table of Contents

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is one of the most feared STDs. In its advanced stages, it causes the disease known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The virus was actually only discovered a few decades ago, but a lot of research funding has been devoted to it, and so we now know a lot about HIV and how it’s transmitted.

There are quite a few myths circulating in the community about HIV. Over the years, we’ve heard quite a few HIV rumors, HIV transmission myths, and AIDS myths being spread. It can sometimes be difficult for people to figure out what’s really true. We wanted to set the record straight by discussing some of these topics. 

Here are a few of the more common questions we’ve heard about HIV, and the scientifically-proven answers. We hope that this helps you to keep yourself safe, and to get a realistic idea of your risk of contracting HIV.

Can a newly infected person transmit HIV?

It is certainly possible for a newly infected person to transmit HIV. Soon after becoming infected, the levels of virus in the blood spike very high. This is known as the acute phase of infection. The body will start to fight the virus and the levels will drop dramatically, although a little bit of virus remains inside of the body. If the person is not treated for HIV, then over time, the levels start to go back up again, eventually leading to AIDS.

For years, it was thought that people are the most infectious during the early period, because the levels of virus are so high. However, recent research has showed that the risk of transmission of the virus in the early stage is not as high as was previously believed. Still, it is definitely possible for someone in the early stages of HIV infection to transmit HIV.

Can HIV be transmitted through food or beverages?

HIV is actually a very delicate virus, and can only live inside of the human body. It can’t live in food or beverages, or on other surfaces outside of the body. In fact, even the saliva of an HIV-positive person can’t transmit the virus; only sexual fluids, blood, and breast milk can transmit it. Sharing food or drink with an HIV-positive person should be safe.

Can HIV live in water?

HIV is also not able to live in water. This means that you can’t get HIV by sharing a pool with an infected person, even if you drink the pool water. This remains true even if the pool water is not chlorinated. (For the record, we don’t advise drinking pool water. While you can’t get HIV from it, there are certainly other diseases that could be transmitted through pool water.)

Can HIV spread through urine?

HIV cannot spread through urine. There has never been a case of a person contracting HIV through contact with the urine of an HIV-positive person. The virus is only known to spread through the sexual fluids, blood, or breast milk of an infected person.

Can I get HIV from touching blood?

HIV cannot be transmitted through the skin. If the skin that touches the blood is completely intact, then there is not a risk of HIV transmission. 

However, if the skin you’re touching the blood with has a small cut or sore, then HIV could gain access to your bloodstream through the wound, and you could become infected with HIV. This is why using gloves whenever you’re in contact with someone else’s blood is recommended.

Can you have HIV with no symptoms?

In its very early stages, HIV can cause a flu-like illness. However, the symptoms may be so mild that the person doesn’t even notice them. After this early stage, HIV is usually asymptomatic for many years. Only after the virus has severely damaged the person’s immune system and caused AIDS will symptoms show up again. Until the person has AIDS, HIV will very often cause no symptoms at all.

This means that it’s not possible to know who has HIV and who doesn’t, simply based on whether they have symptoms. Testing is necessary to find out whether someone has HIV.

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Does HIV always lead to AIDS?

One of the more common AIDS misconceptions is that people with HIV always end up with AIDS. Although this may have been true in the early days of the HIV epidemic, it’s not true anymore. In modern times, the truth about AIDS is that it’s avoidable with good medical care. This is because of the development of medications known as antiretrovirals, which are highly effective against HIV. If an HIV-positive person begins taking these medications early and stays diligent about taking them consistently, studies have shown that their life expectancy is actually similar to that of an HIV-negative person.

Can you develop HIV on your own?

HIV always comes from another person. Unlike with diseases like cancer, HIV or AIDS can’t simply develop on its own. The only way to get HIV is to get it from someone else, and the only way to develop AIDS is to have an untreated HIV infection.

Can you get AIDS from drinking blood?

Although it’s generally not discussed in the wider community, blood play practices like blood drinking are actually fairly common in certain groups. The question of whether these practices can lead to transmission of HIV is therefore an important one. 

There is certainly a theoretical risk of transmitting HIV through drinking blood. If the person whose blood you’re drinking has HIV, and you have any cuts, sores, or irritation on your lips, cheeks, tongue, or throat, then the virus will have an entry point into your body. The virus can also pass through mucous membranes, such as those in the mouth and throat. AIDS only comes from HIV, so it’s possible to get AIDS from drinking blood.

It’s very hard to know what the exact risk of this activity is, since it’s generally not included in scientific studies. However, it’s wise to be careful when allowing anyone else’s blood into your body, and you should definitely check with your partners to ensure that they’re HIV-negative before you begin to engage with their blood.

Can you get HIV from first time sex?

Every single time you have unprotected sex with a partner who has HIV, there is a risk of transmission of the virus. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first time with that partner or your hundredth time. HIV is not transmitted over a long period of time, but through simply one instance of the virus gaining access to the bloodstream. Every time you have sex, you might get HIV.

Can you have HIV and not pass it on?

It’s entirely possible to have HIV and not to transmit it to your sex partners. In fact, a single act of unprotected sex with a positive partner carries a risk of about 0.5% to 2%, depending on the type of sex. This means that there is always a risk of transmission, but it’s certainly possible for a person with HIV not to transmit it.

The best way to reduce the risk of transmission is to use condoms every time you have sex. Regular sex partners of HIV-positive people may also choose to use PrEP – pre-exposure prophylaxis. This involves taking a low dose of HIV medication, so that if the virus does gain access to your bloodstream, it will have a harder time getting established.

How do you know if you have HIV?

It’s common for people with HIV to have no symptoms until the point where they develop AIDS, so the only way to know whether or not you have HIV is to get tested. Depending on your level of risk, testing may be recommended every year or even more often. A blood test is used to check for HIV. This is often included as part of STD testing, although it’s a good idea to check and make sure that you’re getting all of the tests that you need.

An STD clinic can give you the tests that you need, or you can choose home STD testing. The blood sample is obtained through a small fingerprick. The sample can also be tested for other blood-borne STDs, such as hepatitis B.

Sources

Bellan SE, Dushoff J, et al. Reassessment of HIV-1 acute phase infectivity: accounting for heterogeneity and study design with simulated cohorts. PLoS Med 2015 Mar 17;12(3):e1001801. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001801.

HIV. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/default.html. Accessed 12 March 2022.

HIV/AIDS. Mayo Clinic (2020). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hiv-aids/symptoms-causes/syc-20373524. Accessed 12 March 2022.

HIV and AIDS. National Health Service (2021). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/. Accessed 12 March 2022.

PrEP Facts & HIV Prevention. Society of Behavioral Medicine (2022). https://www.sbm.org/healthy-living/prep-facts–hiv-prevention. Accessed 12 March 2022.

Risk of Exposure to HIV/AIDS. Stanford Health Care (2022). https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/sexual-and-reproductive-health/hiv-aids/causes/risk-of-exposure.html. Accessed 12 March 2022.

Way MT, Ingle SM. Life expectancy of HIV-positive adults: a review. Sex Health 2011 Dec;8(4):526-33. doi: 10.1071/SH11046.


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