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How is HIV passed on?

HIV is found within some body fluids. These include blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal fluids. It is not found in saliva, sweat, urine or on the skin.

HIV is passed on when the virus from an infected person gets into the bloodstream of someone else. This can occur during unprotected anal or vaginal sex between same-sex or heterosexual couples. The risk of this happening is dramatically reduced by using a condom (see the BUPA factsheet, Sexually transmitted infections). There is a small chance of infection through unprotected oral sex, although the exact size of this risk is unclear. No method of barrier protection completely eliminates the risk.

HIV can also be passed on when people use dirty needles for injections or tattoos. This can be avoided by using single-use or sterilised needles. People who inject drugs can avoid infection by never sharing injection equipment.

A person can pass the virus on when the levels are high enough in the blood or other body fluids. This usually occurs within three months of infection. Because the early symptoms of HIV are not always obvious, a person may be able to pass on the virus before they realise that they have infected.

HIV cannot be passed on through normal day-to-day contact, such as sharing cutlery, sitting on toilet seats or by shaking hands.

HIV and pregnancy

The virus can be passed on from an infected mother to her baby, during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

An HIV test is offered to all pregnant women early on in their pregnancy. If the test is positive, women are offered treatments that can reduce the chance of transmission. These include HIV drugs taken by the mother during pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding, and drug treatment for the baby in the first few months of life. Mothers with HIV need to consider alternatives to breastfeeding to prevent transmission of the virus.

HIV and blood donation

In the past, people have become infected with HIV through blood or organ donations. Since 1985, all donations in the UK have been screened for HIV, so the chances of this happening are now extremely low.