Preventing HIV - American Sexual Health Association

Preventing HIV

The surest way to reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV is to abstain from sexual intercourse, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected. If you do have sex, use condoms—are highly effective at protecting a person from transmitting or becoming infected with the virus. Keep reading to learn more about how you can reduce your risk for HIV.

FAQs

What is safer sex?
No sexual act is 100% safe. Safer sex, however, involves taking precautions that reduce the risk of transmitting or getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Using condoms correctly every time one has sex is considered one way to have ‘safer’ sex. It is also possible to use other barrier methods such as female condoms and dental dams during sexual activities. The first step to having safer sex is to understand and to be honest about the risks associated with sex. It is also helpful to talk with your partner about these risks and to think about ways to protect yourselves while enjoying a fun and passion filled experience.

Treatment can also reduce HIV transmission risk. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs used to treat HIV infections reduce HIV’s viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood). Research shows there is little if any transmission risk (and perhaps no risk at all) from sex when someone with HIV is taking ART and their viral load is not detectable. (It isn’t known if someone with an undetectable HIV viral load is able to transmit the virus through sharing needles and injecting equipment, though.)


How effective are latex condoms in preventing HIV?
Studies have been done to test how well latex condoms work for preventing HIV transmission. This research has shown that latex condoms are highly effective at protecting a person from transmitting or becoming infected with the virus. The studies were done on HIV-negative individuals at high-risk for the disease because their partners were HIV-positive. Latex condoms used consistently and correctly were effective 98-100% of the time.

While not having sex or to having sex with a long-term mutually monogamous partner who is not infected with HIV or other STIs is the only way to protect yourself completely, latex condoms used consistently and correctly are highly effective in preventing HIV and many other STIs.


How can you limit your risk of getting HIV through sex?
Although there is no sure way to prevent HIV transmission through sex, there are several ways to reduce the likelihood that HIV infection would occur.

  • Abstaining from sex is the only sure way that HIV infection is not possible
  • Delay the age at which you begin to have sexual relations
  • Reduce the number of partners with which you have sex
  • Remain faithful in a relationship with an equally faithful partner
  • Practice only non-penetrative sex
  • Use male and female condoms or dental dams correctly each time you have sex
  • Get tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections
  • Get tested for HIV and encourage your partner to get tested
  • The right treatment for HIV can reduce the amount of virus in the blood and make transmission much less likely.


What is PrEP?
PrEP is pre-exposure prophylaxis. PrEP involves taking a pill once daily to prevent HIV infection in someone who is HIV-negative. The pill—approved by the FDA as PrEP in 2012 and marketed under the brand name Truvada—contains a combination of two antiretroviral drugs that stop the virus from reproducing in the body. When taken consistently, every day, PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by more than 90%.

So who is PrEP recommended for? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers these guidelines on people who should consider taking PrEP:

    • Anyone who is in an ongoing relationship with someone who is HIV-positive.
    • Gay or bisexual men who have had anal sex without a condom or have been diagnosed with an STI in the past 6 months.
    • Heterosexual men or women who do not regularly use condoms with partners with an unknown HIV status who are at substantial risk for HIV infections (e.g. people who inject drugs).
    • People who have injected illicit drugs in the past 6 months and have shared injection equipment or have been in treatment for injection drug use in the past 6 months.

Learn more about PrEP here.


Is it ever completely safe to have sex with a HIV+ person?
There’s no way to know with 100% certainty, but the risk can be significantly reduced, however. Using condoms properly every time one has sex, for example. Lubricants may also be good to consider as they often prevent condom breakage resulting from friction.

Treatment can also reduce transmission risk. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs used to treat HIV infections reduce HIV’s viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood). Research shows there is little if any transmission risk (and perhaps no risk) from sex when someone with HIV is taking ART and their viral load is not detectable. (It isn’t known if someone with an undetectable HIV viral load is able to transmit the virus through sharing needles and injecting equipment, though.)


How can I reduce the risk from injecting drug use?
Sharing needles puts injecting drug users (IDUs) at risk for many blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV. The most effective way to reduce your risk is to stop using drugs. There are many programs available to help a person quit. If an individual cannot or will not stop using injecting drugs, then it is recommended that a person never reuse or share works (cookers, cottons, syringes, needles, water.) New needles, from a reliable source, should be used every time. Swabbing the sight with alcohol can help prevent other types of infections. Safely dispose of needles after using.

If new equipment is not available, syringes should be boiled in water or disinfected with bleach to reduce the risk of transmission. Call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at 1-800-CDC-INFO for more information on preventing transmission of HIV and other diseases through injecting drug use.


Is there a vaccine for HIV?
Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent HIV infection. However, many public and private research organizations, including universities, biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical firms and government agencies, are working to develop preventive HIV vaccines

In 2009, a 16,000-person HIV vaccine clinical trial in Thailand showed a vaccine regimen was modestly effective in protecting some of the trial participants from contracting HIV. While this vaccine is not considered effective enough for licensure, the data from the clinical trial has been valuable for future work in HIV vaccine research.

Finding a safe and effective vaccine to prevent HIV infection will require thousands of people from all walks of life to support HIV vaccine studies and encourage those who volunteer. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, provides information about HIV vaccine clinical trials through it’s HIV Vaccine Research Education Initiative.

Back to Top

Click to Ask an ASHA Expert about HIV Prevention