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How is HIV passed from one person to another?

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Updated December 15, 2008

Question: How is HIV passed from one person to another?
What is an HIV risk factor? Can I get HIV this way? How did I get infected? These are all questions I hear almost everyday. There are some activities that are very risky and there are others that offer no risk at all. There are even some behaviors that people think are safe and are not. This article will help you sort out what's safe and what is not.

Answer: HIV transmission can occur when blood, semen (including pre-seminal fluid, or "pre-cum"), vaginal fluid, or breast milk from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person.

HIV can enter the body through a vein (e.g., injection drug use), the anus or rectum, the vagina, the penis, the mouth, other mucous membranes (e.g., eyes or inside of the nose), or cuts and sores.

Important Point: Intact, healthy skin is an excellent barrier against HIV and other viruses and bacteria.

These are the most common ways that HIV is transmitted from one person to another:

  • by having sexual intercourse (anal, vaginal, or oral sex) with an HIV-infected person
  • by sharing needles or injection equipment with an injection drug user who is infected with HIV
  • from HIV-infected women to babies before or during birth, or through breast-feeding after birth.

HIV also can be transmitted through transfusions of infected blood or blood clotting factors.

Important Point: Since 1985, all donated blood in the United States has been tested for HIV. Therefore, the risk of infection through transfusion of blood or blood products is extremely low. The U.S. blood supply is considered to be among the safest in the world.

Some health-care workers have become infected after being stuck with needles containing HIV-infected blood or, less frequently, after infected blood contact with the worker's open cut or through splashes into the worker's eyes or inside their nose. There has been only one instance of patients being infected by an HIV-infected health care worker. This involved HIV transmission from an infected dentist to six patients.

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