Despite all we’ve learned about HIV since the ’80s, many misconceptions persist about the virus, how it’s transmitted, and what it means for your long-term health.
It’s been more than 40 years since the first reported case of HIV in the United States. In 2020 alone, doctors across the country diagnosed 30,635 cases of HIV — and even more cases are thought to have gone undiagnosed.
Although we now have effective treatments that can reduce transmission of HIV and help people who live with the virus prevent the development of AIDS, there are still many misconceptions about this condition. What gives?
Here, we break down some of the most common myths about HIV once and for all.
Nope, swapping spit doesn’t spread HIV (even though people worried a lot about smooching back in the ’80s). Feel free to hold hands, hug, and share a soda while you’re at it.
HIV can only be transmitted through:
- vaginal fluid
- anal mucous
- breast milk
No amount of saliva can transmit HIV. Saliva doesn’t carry enough traces of the virus. Research as far back as the mid- to late ’80s has found that kissing is not a risk factor for transmission of HIV.
Abstinence was touted as a go-to way to prevent HIV transmission in the ’80s and ’90s. And even today, that potential benefit is used as an argument for abstinence-only sex ed in schools, despite lots of evidence that those programs just don’t work.
Not into the idea of a no-sex lifestyle? Condoms are another option. Research suggests they can reduce the risk of HIV transmission by as much as 91%. That’s why condoms have been recommended as an HIV prevention tool for decades.
However, as of 2012, people had a new option for preventing HIV. That’s when the Food and Drug Administration OK’d the first preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and even more options are available today.
PrEP is a medication that offers people with known risk factors — such as having sex with someone who has HIV or sharing needles for injectable drug use — a way to reduce their risk of contracting HIV. You can take either one pill per day or one injection every other month (after initial injections once a month for 2 consecutive months).
And it works really well. When PrEP is taken as prescribed, it can slash a person’s chances of getting HIV through sex by a whopping 99%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
OK, there’s a teensy bit of truth behind this myth. But the chances of getting HIV by going down on someone are so low that the risk almost doesn’t exist.
According to a 2014 research review, the risk of transmitting HIV through oral sex is low but not zero.
By using barrier methods and/or PrEP, you can pretty much eliminate that risk while still achieving that Big O for yourself and your partner any way you please.
The pill might protect you from an unwanted pregnancy, but it’s no match for HIV. Same goes for other types of birth control, like IUDs, patches, and rings.
If you want to get down without risking HIV transmission, your best bet is to use a condom or other barrier method or PrEP.
We get it: HIV and AIDS have been lumped together for so long that many people (wrongfully) assume they’re the same thing.
But let’s get the facts straight: HIV is a virus that attacks your immune system, while AIDS is a condition that can develop after HIV has caused serious damage.
You can live with HIV and stay healthy for decades without ever developing AIDS, as long as you get treatment. Otherwise, HIV can progress to AIDS in three stages, according to the CDC:
- Acute HIV infection: This stage involves a lot of HIV in the blood and can come with flu-like symptoms (but some people never feel sick at this stage).
- Chronic HIV infection: Also known as asymptomatic HIV infection, this is when HIV is still active but doesn’t reproduce as quickly as in the first stage. People often don’t have symptoms at this point.
- AIDS: This is when a person has a high viral load, very low levels of important white blood cells called CD4 cells, and severe damage to their immune system.
With today’s treatments, the outlook for HIV is promising, as most people who contract the virus go on to have long, healthy lives.
Sure, the early days of HIV and AIDS were grim, just given how little people knew about the virus and the condition.
But treatment has come a long way since the ’80s. Today, antiretroviral therapy can greatly reduce the amount of the virus in a person’s body, often to the point that HIV no longer shows up on blood tests.
When that happens, the person has effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to others. This is known as “undetectable equals untransmittable” (U=U). This also helps prevent HIV from progressing.
While antiretroviral therapy can substantially reduce the amount of HIV in a person’s blood, it’s not a cure. (But wouldn’t that be nice?) If an HIV-positive person suddenly stops taking their meds, the amount of virus in their blood can increase.
Even skipping doses of the meds can allow HIV to change form and potentially become resistant to the drugs, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
The key to living well with HIV and preventing transmission to others is to seek diagnosis and treatment as early as possible and take those meds exactly as prescribed.
From mixtapes to leg warmers, there are plenty of things from the ’80s to feel nostalgic about — but myths about HIV aren’t one of them.
We now know you can’t get HIV from kissing, and it’s nearly impossible for the virus to be transmitted through oral sex — especially if you’re using a barrier method and/or PrEP.
Plus, treatments can help prevent an HIV-positive person from developing AIDS or passing the virus to others.
But these advancements don’t mean as much if misconceptions continue to prevail, so let’s (finally) put these HIV myths to bed — forever.