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.

1

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, toilet sinks, drinking fountains, spitting, or touching body fluids.

Recap

HIV is mainly spread by anal sex, vaginal sex, and shared needles. The virus can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or through occupational exposure in a hospital.

2

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.

PrEP is recommended for people at high risk of infection, such as men who have sex with men (MSM) and couples in a serodiscordant relationship (in which one partner has HIV and the other doesn't).

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

Recap

HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a preventive strategy in which a daily dose of HIV medications can reduce a person's risk of getting HIV by as much as 99%.

3

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.

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.

Recap

If you have HIV, getting and maintaining an undetectable viral load reduces your odds of infecting others to zero.

4

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.

Recap

Other tools can prevent HIV as well as—or, in some cases, better than—condoms. But only condoms can prevent HIV, pregnancy, and other STDs.

5

Conceive Safely

Husband kissing the stomach of a pregnant woman
Yagi Studio / Getty Images

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.

Recap

By maintaining an undetectable viral load in the partner with HIV and using PrEP in the partner without, serodiscordant couples can prevent transmission of the virus and even explore pregnancy.

6

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.

Recap

The risk of mother-to-children transmission is low if HIV therapy is started early in the pregnancy and breastfeeding is avoided.

7

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.

Government-sponsored free 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.

Recap

People who inject drugs can reduce their risk of getting or passing HIV by not sharing needles. Free needle exchange programs are available in many states to help avoid shared needles and syringes.

8

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.

Recap

If you've been accidentally exposed to HIV, you may be able to avert the infection with a 28-day course of HIV drugs called post-exposure prophylaxis. PEP should be started within 72 hours of exposure, preferably sooner.

Summary

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.

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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.
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