Can HIV Be Spread Through Casual Contact?

Doubts persist even when risk is statistically zero

Table of Contents

Despite increased public awareness, there remains a lot of confusion about how you can get HIV and how you cannot. While most people understand that you can't get HIV from utensils, for example, there are many who will experience a twinge of doubt if they learn that the chef of their favorite restaurant has HIV.

It is these doubts, often unspoken, that fuel misconceptions about the disease. These misconceptions, in turn, can alter prevention practices—leading some to overcompensate (such as avoiding drinking fountains) and others to undercompensate (such as "pulling out" before ejaculation).

A man sneezing aggressively
James Gathany / CDC Public Health Image

This article explains how HIV is transmitted and the four conditions that must be met in order for an infection to occur. It also describes the ways that HIV cannot be transmitted and what to do if you think you've been infected.

4 Conditions for HIV Transmission

As serious as HIV is, the virus itself is not all that robust. Unlike the cold and flu viruses, which can be passed through airborne droplets, HIV requires intimate contact and the direct exchange of body fluids.

Exposure to the virus does mean that an infection will occur. While a single sexual exposure may result in an infection, it often doesn't. And there are many reasons for this.

In the end, there are four conditions that must be met in order for an HIV infection to occur:

  1. There must be body fluids in which HIV can thrive. For HIV, this means semen, blood, vaginal fluids, rectal fluid, or breast milk. HIV cannot survive for very long in the open air or in parts of the body where is high acid content (such as the stomach or bladder).
  2. There must be sufficient amounts of virus in the body fluid. This is why saliva, sweat, and tears are unlikely sources of infection since enzymes in these fluids break down and neutralize the virus.
  3. There must be a way for body fluids to enter the body. This happens mainly through anal and vaginal sex but can also be spread through shared needles, accidental blood exposure in healthcare settings, or transmission of the virus from mother to child during pregnancy.
  4. The virus must be able to reach vulnerable cells inside the body. Skin contact with a body fluid is not enough. It needs to enter the bloodstream through a break in the skin or penetrate vulnerable tissues of the vagina or rectum. The depth and size of the penetration also matter, with a deep cut being riskier than a minor scrape.

Recap

In order for an HIV infection to occur, four conditions must be met:

  • There must be body fluids in which HIV can thrive.
  • There must be a sufficient amount of virus in the fluids.
  • There must be a way for the fluids to enter the body;
  • The virus must be able to reach vulnerable cells deep inside the body.

How HIV Cannot Be Spread

HIV cannot and has never been shown to be passed from one person to the next by the following means:

  • Touching, hugging, kissing, or shaking hands
  • Touching an object an HIV-positive person has touched
  • Sharing utensils or cups
  • Eating food prepared by an HIV-positive person
  • Sharing grooming items, even toothbrushes or razors
  • Getting spit on by an HIV-positive person (even in the eyes or mouth)
  • Getting bitten by an HIV-positive person (even if blood is drawn)
  • Touching semen or vaginal fluid
  • Getting blood from an HIV-positive person on you
  • Using public fountains, toilet seats, or showers
  • Mosquitoes or bug bites

Oral sex, tattooing, piercing, and dental procedure are also unlikely sources of transmission. Although transmission is possible in theory, there have been no documented cases in the United States of transmission by any of these means.

Similarly, the risk of HIV from organ transplants and blood transfusion is low due to the routine screening of donor organs and the U.S. blood supply.

Recap

HIV cannot be passed through touching, kissing, mosquito bites, public fountains, toilet seats, biting, spitting, touching body fluids, or sharing utensils or personal care items.

If You Think You've Been Exposed to HIV

HIV hotlines are used to getting calls from people who are afraid they have been infected through casual contact. Perhaps the person was involved in a fight or came into contact with someone who was bleeding. Others may worry about having deep kissed someone who may have HIV.

While infection by these means is statistically zero, people will often want a 100% guarantee that they're going to be fine. In such cases, doctors will often take the opportunity to perform an HIV test and counsel the individual on how to protect themselves against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

If there is an actual risk of transmission, the doctor may prescribe a 28-day course of HIV medications known as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). If started within 72 hours of a suspected exposure, PEP may be able to avert the infection.

Recap

If you think you've been exposed to HIV, immediately contact your healthcare provider or go to the nearest hospital or clinic. If needed, a 28-day course of medications called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) can be prescribed to help avert the infection.

Summary

HIV is primarily transmitted through anal sex, vaginal sex, and shared needles or syringes. It can also be passed through needlestick injuries in a hospital or from mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding. You cannot get HIV from hugging, kissing, shared utensils, toilets seats, mosquitos, food, or touching body fluids.

Not every exposure results in an infection. For an HIV infection to occur, there must be body fluids in which HIV can thrive, specifically semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, blood, or breastmilk. There must also be a sufficient amount of virus in the fluids and a way for the fluids to enter the body and reach vulnerable cells.

If you think you've been exposed to HIV, you can start a 28-day course of medications called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). If started within 72 hours, PEP may be able to avert the infection.

2 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. Krakower DS, Jain S, Mayer KH. Antiretrovirals for primary HIV prevention: the current status of pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis. Curr HIV/AIDS Rep. 2015;12(1):127-38. doi:10.1007/s11904-014-0253-5

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