How Do You Catch HIV?

Medically Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on February 12, 2024
4 min read

We've come a long way from the days when people were so worried they might catch HIV that they avoided people with it altogether. Still, some people may not be sure exactly what's safe and what's not.

If there is a question or a concern, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an important option for persons at risk of exposure to HIV through sexual or injecting drug use behaviors.

It's true that HIV is a virus, like a cold or the flu -- but it doesn't spread the same way. In fact, it's a lot harder to catch. You can only get it when certain fluids from someone who's infected get into your body.

So, how does that happen?

No. HIV is only spread through specific body fluids: blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid (secreted from the penis before ejaculation), vaginal and rectal fluid, and breast milk. Hugging and shaking hands are safe.

It's possible, but it hardly ever happens. HIV isn't spread through saliva.

But if you kiss someone who's infected and has bleeding gums or sores, you could get the virus if you also have cuts or sores around or in your mouth -- because of the blood-to-blood contact.

No, the virus doesn't travel through air.

Not like that. Sweat and tears don't carry HIV. And even though they might have a trace of blood, there have been no reported cases of HIV from vomit or pee.

Yes, and either partner can get it!

Women can get HIV through the tissue that lines their vagina and cervix. The virus can get into men through the opening of their penis or through a small cut or sore on it. Women are at higher risk if they are the ones being penetrated.

Effective HIV drugs (antiretroviral therapy) will greatly reduce the chances that an HIV-infected person can give HIV to their partner in this way. However, even when HIV drugs are used, use a condom to cut your chances of the virus passing between you, as well as getting any other sexually transmitted infections.

Yes. Either partner can get it from the other, but ther person being penetrated is at higher risk.

And while condoms work to protect you if they stay in place, they're more likely to break during anal sex.It is smart to use a condom-safe lubricant (that is not oil-based) to reduce friction and the risk of condoms breaking.

Again, effective antretroviral therapy in the HIV-infected partner will reduce the chances of passing HIV. However, condoms should be used to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

It's much less likely than when you have anal or vaginal sex. Still, it can happen.

The person who ends up with semen or vaginal fluid in their mouth is at greater risk. Again, use a condom, latex barrier, or dental dam.

No, for several reasons. First, there's not likely to be the right kind of body fluid on public surfaces. And if there were, the virus would probably die before you got to it; it can't live long outside a body. And it would still have to get through your skin or into you somehow.

That's not a problem. Sharing dishes, glasses, and eating utensils is safe. Remember, HIV isn't in saliva, and it dies quickly once it's outside the body.

Probably not, even if there are traces of blood or another fluid in it. The virus can't survive the cooking process or your stomach acid.

Passing HIV through eating has happened only in rare cases, when children ate food that was already chewed by someone with the virus.

Nope, not through insects.

Yes, and it's not just the needles. Any of the supplies for preparing drugs for injection -- syringes, bottle caps, spoons, or containers -- could have the virus if someone with HIV used it first.

In theory, yes, if the needles were used on someone with HIV before you and then not sterilized. But the CDC says no cases have been reported of someone getting the virus this way.

Again, theoretically yes, but in the U.S., there's little risk. Careful testing makes sure that blood bank supplies are HIV-free.

Maybe. Body fluids like blood can pass through broken skin, wounds, or mucous membranes. But it's very rare.

It's possible if a bite or scratch breaks your skin, but (yes, again) it's extremely rare. And if your skin doesn't break, there's no chance.

Getting spit on is unpleasant and messy, but not a danger as far as catching HIV.

Women infected with HIV can pass the virus to their child during pregnancy or while they are giving birth, or through their breast milk. The chances are greatly reduced, however, if the mother is taking effective HIV drugs (antiretroviral therapy) throughout their pregnancy, labor, and delivery.