8 Simple Steps to Prevent HIV

HIV prevention is about more than just following rules. It's about knowing the risks and understanding how HIV is transmitted and not transmitted. It's about taking that extra step to educate yourself about both new and traditional forms of HIV prevention. Most of all, it's about knowing yourself.

In the end, every person is different. Some people are more vulnerable to infection than others. Others may have specific goals, like starting a family or getting pregnant, that require special considerations and carry different risks.

To protect yourself, you need to take an honest look at your personal risk factors and design an individual prevention strategy to minimize the risks.

This article looks at eight different tools and techniques that you can incorporate into your own HIV prevention strategy.


Know the Risks

HIV prevention starts by getting the facts straight—understanding the various modes of transmission and identifying which activities place you, as an individual, at risk.

Start with knowing the basics:

  • HIV is spread by intimate contact with semen, preseminal fluid ("pre-cum"), blood, vaginal fluid, rectal fluid, and breast milk.
  • HIV is mainly spread through anal sex, vaginal sex, and shared needles.
  • HIV can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or through occupational exposure (such as a needlestick injury).
  • HIV cannot be spread by touching, kissing, mosquitos, shared utensils, toilets, sinks, drinking fountains, spitting, or touching body fluids.

Take PrEP

Woman holding PrEP pill

ThomasThomas / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a prevention strategy in which a daily dose of HIV medications, known as antiretrovirals, can reduce your risk of getting HIV by as much as 99%.

Apretude is a newer PrEP option that does not involve taking a daily pill. It is given as an injection administered every two months to the uninfected partner and has been shown to greatly reduce infection risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all individuals who are sexually active adults and adolescents should be educated about PrEP. PrEP is recommended for anyone more likely to be diagnosed with HIV, including people in serodiscordant relationships when their partner's viral load is detectable or unknown; people with one of more sexual partners of unknown HIV status; and people who have had a bacterial STI in the past six months.

PrEP can be used by anyone at risk of HIV who wants to reduce their odds of infection.


Get and Stay Undetectable

Truvada pills

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Undetectable = untransmissible (U=U) is an evidence-based strategy in which people with an undetectable viral load cannot pass the virus to others.

A viral load is a measurement of the amount of virus in a sample of blood. Undetectable means that no virus was detected in the blood sample, which is defined as having under 200 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood.

Based on evidence from the PARTNER1 and PARTNER2 studies which ran from 2010 to 2018, you cannot pass the virus to others if you achieve and sustain an undetectable viral load.


Use Condoms

There is no reason to be lax when it comes to condoms. Short of abstinence, internal and external condoms are still the most reliable means of preventing pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). No other preventive strategy can do all three.

Preventing STDs is important because they can increase the risk of HIV by compromising delicate vaginal or anal tissues. This is not only true of STDs like syphilis that cause open sores but also any STD that causes genital inflammation.


Conceive Safely

Husband kissing the stomach of a pregnant woman
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In nearly half of all couples living with HIV, one partner is HIV-positive and the other is HIV-negative.

With advances in HIV therapy, serodiscordant couples today have a greater opportunity than ever to conceive—enabling pregnancy while minimizing the risk of transmission to a partner without HIV.

In fact, the combination of PrEP and an undetectable viral load should all but ensure protection against transmission in serodiscordant relationships.


Avoid Mother-to-Child Transmission

Newborn baby gripping his mothers hand
WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

The prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV involves all stages of pregnancy. Due to the routine screening of HIV during pregnancy, mother-to-child transmission is uncommon in the United States. Even so, it still occurs.

By placing the mother on antiretroviral therapy early in the pregnancy, the risk of transmission is extremely low. Even if treatment is started later in the pregnancy, the overall risk is still less than 2%.

Since HIV can be found in breastmilk, nursing should also be avoided.


Avoid Sharing Needles

The rate of HIV among people who inject drugs (PWIDs) is high. Studies suggest that anywhere from 20% to 40% of PWIDs are infected due to the shared use of needles or syringes.

And, it's not only PWIDSs who are at risk. Their sexual partners may also be at risk, particularly if they are unaware of their partner's drug use.

Free, government-sponsored needle exchange programs are available in many states to prevent the spread of HIV and other bloodborne infections (like hepatitis C). Clean needle programs have been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of HIV among PWIDs by reducing the risk of needle sharing.


Prevent HIV After an Exposure

Patient in hospital gown waiting in examination room
Hero Images / Getty Images

If you believe you have been exposed to HIV, either through condomless sex or other high-risk activities, you can take a 28-day course of HIV drugs to potentially avert the infection.

Called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), the strategy works best if started soon after exposure to the virus. Research has shown that PEP can reduce the risk of HIV by up to 81% if started within 72 hours. The earlier you start treatment, the better.


Today, HIV prevention takes many forms. Depending on your individual risk factors, you may benefit from using one to several of these:

  • Internal or external condoms
  • Using pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) if you don't have HIV
  • Maintaining an undetectable viral load if you have HIV
  • Starting HIV therapy if you are pregnant
  • Avoiding breastfeeding if you have HIV
  • Avoiding shared needles or syringes
  • Using post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) if accidentally exposed to HIV

Education is also key. The more that you know about HIV and how to avoid it, the better protected you will be.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Patel P, Borkowf CB, Brooks JT, Lasry A, Lansky A, Mermin J. Estimating per-act HIV transmission risk: a systematic reviewAIDS. 2014;28(10):1509–1519. doi:10.1097/QAD.0000000000000298

  2. HIV.gov. Pre-exposure prophylaxis.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves first injectable treatment for HIV pre-exposure prevention.

  4. Rodger AJ, Cambiano V, Bruun T, et al. Risk of HIV transmission through condomless sex in serodifferent gay couples with the HIV-positive partner taking suppressive antiretroviral therapy (PARTNER): final results of a multicentre, prospective, observational studyLancet. 2019;393(10189):2428-2438. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30418-0

  5. Yah CS, Simate GS, Hlangothi P, Somai BM. Nanotechnology and the future of condoms in the prevention of sexually transmitted infectionsAnn Afr Med. 2018;17(2):49-57. doi:10.4103/aam.aam_32_17

  6. Muessig KE, Cohen MS. Advances in HIV prevention for serodiscordant couplesCurr HIV/AIDS Rep. 2014;11(4):434-446. doi:10.1007/s11904-014-0225-9

  7. DHHS Panel on Treatment of Pregnant Women with HIV Infection and Prevention of Perinatal Transmission. Recommendations for the use of antiretroviral drugs in pregnant women with HIV infection and interventions to reduce perinatal HIV transmission in the United States.

  8. Strathdee SA, Stockman JK. Epidemiology of HIV among injecting and non-injecting drug users: current trends and implications for interventionsCurr HIV/AIDS Rep. 2010;7(2):99-106. doi:10.1007/s11904-010-0043-7

  9. Mir MU, Akhtar F, Zhang M, Thomas NJ, Shao H. A meta-analysis of the association between needle exchange programs and HIV seroconversion among injection drug users. Cureus. 2018 Sep;10(9):e3328. doi:10.7759/cureus.3328

  10. Sultan B, Benn P, Waters L. Current perspectives in HIV post-exposure prophylaxisHIV AIDS (Auckl). 2014;6:147-158. doi:10.2147/HIV.S46585

Additional Reading

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.