Understanding the Ways in Which HIV Is Transmitted

Since the early days of the AIDS pandemic in the early 1980s, over 77 million people have become infected worldwide with HIV, the virus responsible for setting the stage for AIDS-related illnesses. Over 35 million people have died as a result of these various AIDS-related illnesses. In 2017 alone, approximately 940,000 people around the globe died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Although an HIV infection is no longer a proverbial “death sentence” in the United States – it is now generally classified as a manageable condition – understanding how the virus is transmitted is important. There remains an alarming level of misinformation and misunderstanding about how HIV is and is not transmitted from one individual to another.

Specific Methods of HIV Transmission

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the specific ways in which HIV is spread in the United States. The CDC has placed methods of transmission into one of three categories:

  • Primary methods of transmission
  • Less common methods of transmission
  • Extremely rare methods of transmission

Primary Methods of Transmission

The primary methods of transmission of HIV in the United States today are:

  • Anal sexual intercourse
  • Vaginal sexual intercourse
  • Sharing needles, syringes, rinse water, and other equipment associated with intravenous drug use

The recipient of anal intercourse is at greatest risk than the person in the insertive position. The same holds true for vaginal intercourse. The risk of contracting HIV via vaginal intercourse is far less likely it is via anal intercourse.

Research has demonstrated that HIV can live in a used hypodermic needle for up to 45 days. The longevity of the virus depends on ambient temperature and other factors.

Less Common Methods of Transmission

There are other ways in which HIV is transmitted in the United States, albeit less commonplace than the primary methods described a moment ago. These are:

  • From mother to child during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding
  • Being stuck by a hypodermic needle, or some other sharp object, that is contaminated by the virus

Extremely Rare Methods of Transmission

The CDC does delineate some extremely rare methods of transmission. Although the CDC states transmission through these avenues is highly unlikely, cases of people contracting the virus in these manners have been documented. These are:

  • Oral sex
  • Blood transfusions
  • Organ transplants
  • Consuming food pre-chewed by a person with HIV
  • Deep bite by a person with HIV
  • Contact between wounds, broken skin, mucous membranes
  • Deep open-mouth kissing

There are many caveats associated with these rare methods of transmission, which are noted for your consideration now. On the rare occasions when HIV is transferred via oral sex, the transfer occurs via semen or vaginal fluids contaminated with the virus.

Thirty-five years ago, blood transfusions and organ transplants were more common avenues through which HIV was transferred. With all of the testing and screening involved in the blood and organ donation process, odds of contracting HIV through a blood transfusion or the receipt of a donated organ are next to none.

If a person with HIV who has bleeding gums or open sores in his or her mouth should chew food for some reason, and then give that food to someone else, it is remotely possible for the virus to be transferred in that manner. The only documented cases of this type of transfer appear to be between adults and infants.

If two people have wounds or broken skin that is not protected, and these areas of damaged skin come into contact with one another, it is possible for HIV to transfer from one person to another. Finally, if two people with bleeding gums or open sores in their mouths engage in deep open-mouth kissing, it is possible to pass HIV in this manner. Two points must be stressed. First, HIV is not contained in saliva. Second, HIV can be contained in blood that might be in the mouths of a person with gum or sore issues and transmitted in that manner. Bear in mind that this type of transmission is highly unlikely.

How HIV Is Not Transmitted

In the early days of the what eventually became known as the AIDS Pandemic, there was a great deal of misinformation and confusion, not only about the disease itself but how people contracted it. Even more than three decades later, misinformation and misperceptions exist about how the HIV virus itself is spread. Thus, when discussing how HIV is transmitted, a quick review of ways in which it is not spread is warranted. HIV is not transmitted by:

  • Sharing food (with the rare, solitary caveat mentioned previously)
  • Via saliva
  • By kissing (with the rare, solitary caveat mentioned previously)
  • Toilet seats
  • Doorknobs
  • Sharing cups, glasses, other utensils
  • Musical instruments
  • Swimming pools
  • Gym showers
  • Gym equipment
  • Insect bites

Blood, Bodily Fluids, and HIV Transmission

In the final analysis, the transmission of HIV is dependent upon specific types of direct exposure to specific bodily fluids, especially blood. Other bodily fluids that can carry the HIV virus include semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk.

Care must be taken to protect against the spread of disease when a person comes into contact with someone else’s blood. This includes a situation when an individual is called upon to clean up a blood spill or after an incident in which a scene is contaminated by blood. In cleaning up blood, a person is to follow what are known as universal precautions.

The basic elements of universal blood precautions are akin to what is known as personal protective equipment. When it comes to universal precautions, when cleaning up a blood spill, a person is directed to utilize personal protective equipment that includes:

  • Face mask or respirator
  • Durable gloves
  • Protective eyewear
  • Gown, smock, or uniform

If a blood spill is particularly extensive, a person should give serious consideration to engaging the services of a professional, experienced blood spill cleaning company, also known as a biohazard remediation service. A rough rule of thumb to consider when wondering whether professional assistance is a good idea is to seek help if a blood spill covers a space greater than the size of a typical dinner plate.