How is HIV contracted and transmitted?

How do you contract HIV?

HIV can be transmitted through unprotected sex, via infected blood or from an infected pregnant woman to her unborn child. It’s a very fragile virus that doesn’t live outside the body for long and it certainly can’t penetrate unbroken skin.

For many years there have been mass publicity and education programs designed to inform people how HIV is transmitted. In the early days there were mixed messages – some health campaigns led people to believe they should avoid practically all contact with an infected person. This led to people with HIV and AIDS being ostracized from society.

These days we’re a bit more switched on about HIV. More is known about the virus and how it is transmitted.

The most common method of transmission is though unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person. HIV is found in vaginal and penile fluids which are produced before and during sex.

When an infected man ejaculates inside a woman during intercourse his infected semen can pass into the blood stream through even a microscopic cut inside the body. An infected woman’s vaginal fluid can pass on HIV through a possible raw patch on the penis.

The risk of contracting HIV with anal intercourse is greater than with vaginal intercourse because the anus lining is very delicate and can be more easily damaged. This allows the infection to get into the blood through any damaged tissue.

Infection from oral sex alone is very rare, although it can happen. For example if a person sucks on the penis of an infected partner and HIV carrying semen gets into the mouth, it could get into the blood stream if there is a cut or ulcer in the mouth. The same applies to a women’s vaginal fluid during oral sex.

Transmission through infected blood occurs in several ways. These days the most common is through using dirty needles to inject drugs. These needles could carry a small amount of blood from an infected person which could be injected straight into the next user.

Likewise a doctor or nurse could accidentally stick themselves with an infected needle while treating a person with the virus. This however is extremely rare.

Back in the early 1980s, before blood was screened for HIV, the infection was transmitted through contaminated blood during transfusions. In the late 80s a large number of people started displaying the symptoms of HIV after receiving blood several years before. Hemophiliacs in particular were affected.

But the risk of getting HIV from infected blood these days is miniscule. Blood screening and specialist heat treatment work together to ensure that no such blood gets used in transfusions.

An HIV positive pregnant woman can pass on the virus to her child before or during birth because of the sharing of blood. She can also pass it on through her breast milk.

There are many urban myths surrounding how HIV is transmitted. You CAN’T get it from kissing, coughing or sneezing and certainly not from swimming pools, showers or toilets. It’s not spread through mosquito bites and provided an unbroken condom is used it won’t get through while having sex – anal or vaginal.

Basically HIV transmission requires very close contact with vaginal fluids, semen, breast milk or infected blood.


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