Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What are the main routes of HIV transmission?
These are the main ways in which someone can become infected with HIV:
- Unprotected penetrative intercourse with someone who is infected.
- Injection or transfusion of contaminated blood or blood products, donations of semen (artificial insemination), skin grafts and organ transplants taken from someone who is infected.
- From a mother who is infected to her baby; this may be during the course of pregnancy, at birth and through breast-feeding.
- Sharing unsterilised injection equipment that has been previously used by someone who is infected.
Q. How safe is oral sex?
Although it is possible to become infected with HIV through oral sex, the risk of becoming infected in this way is much lower than the risk of infection via unprotected sexual intercourse with a man or woman.
When giving oral sex to a man (sucking or licking a man's penis) a person could become infected with HIV if infected semen got into any cuts, sores or receding gums a person might have in their mouth.
Giving oral sex to a woman (licking a woman's clitoris or vagina) is also considered relatively low risk. Transmission could take place if infected sexual fluids from a woman got into the mouth of her partner. The likelihood of infection occurring might be increased if there is menstrual blood involved or the woman is infected with another STD.
The likelihood of either a man or a woman becoming infected with HIV as a consequence of receiving oral sex is extremely low.
Q. Is unprotected anal intercourse more of an HIV risk than vaginal or oral sex?
Unprotected anal intercourse does carry a higher risk than most other forms of sexual activities. The lining of the rectum has less cells than that of the vagina, and therefore can be damaged and cause bleeding during intercourse. This can then be a route into the bloodstream for infected sexual fluids or blood. There is also a risk to the insertive partner during anal intercourse, though the risk is less than that of the receptive partner.
Q. Is there a connection between HIV and other STD's?
HIV and other STD's can impact upon each other. The presence of STD's in an HIV infected person can increase the risk of HIV transmission. This can be through a genital ulcer which could bleed or through genital discharge. If an HIV negative person has an STD, it can also increase their risk of being infected with HIV. This is whether the STD causes breaks in the skin (ie: syphilis or herpes) or through the infection stimulating an immune response in the genital area and thus making HIV transmission more likely (ie: chlamydia or gonorrhoea). HIV transmission however is more likely in those with ulcerative STD's than non-ulcerative. Using condoms during sex is the best way to prevent the sexual transmission of diseases, including HIV.
Q. Can I become infected with HIV through normal social contact/activities such as shaking hands/toilet seats/swimming pools/sharing cutlery/kissing/sneezes and coughs?
No. This is because HIV is not an airborne, water borne or food-borne virus. Also, the virus does not survive for very long outside the human body. Therefore ordinary social contact such as kissing, shaking hands, coughing and sharing cutlery does not result in the virus being passed from one person to another.
Q. Is there a risk of HIV transmission when having a tattoo, body piercing or visiting the barbers?
If instruments contaminated with blood are not sterilised between clients there is a risk of HIV transmission. However, people who carry out body piercing or tattoos should follow procedures called 'universal precautions', which are designed to prevent the transmission of blood borne infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B.
When visiting the barbers there is no risk of infection unless the skin is cut and infected blood gets in to the wound. Traditional "cut throat" razors used by barbers now have disposable blades, which should only be used once, and so reduce the risk of blood borne infections such as Hepatitis and HIV.
Q. Can I get HIV from a mosquito?
No, it is not possible to get HIV from mosquitoes. When taking blood from someone mosquitoes do not inject blood from any previous person. The only thing that a mosquito injects is saliva, which acts as a lubricant and enables it to feed more efficiently.
Q. Can I become infected with HIV if I inject drugs and share the needles with someone else, without sterilising them?
There is a possibility of becoming infected with HIV if you share injecting equipment with someone who has the virus. If HIV infected blood remains within the bore (inside) of the needle or in the syringe and someone else then injects themselves with it, that blood can be flushed into the bloodstream. Sharing needles, syringes, spoons, filters and water, can pass on the virus. Disinfecting equipment between uses can reduce the chance of transmission, but doesn't eliminate it.
Q. Can I transmit HIV to my baby whilst I am pregnant and if I breastfeed?
An infected pregnant woman can pass the virus on to her unborn baby either before or during birth. HIV can also be passed on during breastfeeding. If a woman knows that she is infected with HIV, there are drugs that she can take to greatly reduce the chances of her child becoming infected, as well as other options such as choosing to have a caesarean section delivery and not breastfeeding, as HIV is found in breast milk.
Q. Does donating blood or having a blood transfusion mean that I am putting myself at risk from HIV?
Some people have been infected through a transfusion of infected blood. In most countries, however, all the blood used for transfusions is now tested for HIV. In those countries where the blood has been tested, HIV infection through blood transfusions is now extremely rare. Blood products, such as those used by people with haemophilia, are now heat-treated to make them safe.