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HIV: The basics

What's the difference between HIV and AIDS?

HIV/AIDS is often written as one word with one meaning. However, HIV and AIDS are different things.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. A person becomes infected with HIV (HIV positive) when the virus enters their blood stream.

HIV attacks the immune system, which is the body’s defence against disease. If a person’s immune system is severely damaged by the virus, they will develop AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). This means they are likely to get infections and illnesses that their body would normally fight off.

Being diagnosed with HIV does not mean a person has AIDS or that they are going to die. Treatments slow down damage to the immune system so that people with HIV can remain well, and live healthy and fulfilling lives.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is found in body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. Infection only occurs when body fluids from an infected person enter the blood stream of another person.

HIV can be transmitted by:
  • Vaginal and anal sex without a condom
  • Sharing needles, syringes and other equipment for injecting drugs
  • Unsterile body piercing or tattooing
  • Mother-to-child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding
  • Blood transfusion and/or blood products in some other countries. In Australia, blood transfusions and blood products are safe.
HIV cannot be transmitted by:
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Kissing
  • Spitting
  • Crying
  • Sharing cutlery and crockery
  • Bed linen
  • Toilets
  • Showers
  • Insects such as mosquitoes
Can HIV be transmitted through oral sex?

Oral sex is considered a very low risk practice in regard to HIV transmission.

In the case of oral sex with a HIV positive partner, the risk of transmission is lowered even further if the HIV-positive partner is on treatment and has a low viral load, and/or the HIV-negative partner is using pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

The risk can increase if there is ejaculating in the mouth, and if there are cuts or ulcers in the mouth, or the presence on another STI. Even in these instances it is still regarded as low risk.

Caution should be taken with this in mind, particularly directly after dental surgery or immediately after flossing.

Information courtesy of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations afao.org.au

How can I avoid getting HIV?


HIV can be passed on through invisible cuts and scrapes on the surface of the vagina, penis or anus during sex without condom with someone who has HIV.
To avoid transmission of HIV:

  • If you are unsure of your own or your sexual partner’s HIV status, use a new condom and water-based lubricant every time you have vaginal or anal sex. This also protects you from most other sexually transmissible infections.
  • If your or your sexual partner is HIV positive, HIV transmission can be prevented if the positive partner is on HIV antiretroviral treatment and has an undetectable viral load. Most people will have an undetectable viral load after six months of effective treatment.
  • If the positive partner does not have an undetectable viral load, you can prevent HIV transmission by using condoms and lubricant, or by the negative partner taking PrEP.
  • If both partners are HIV negative and monogamous, there is no risk of HIV.

Injecting drugs, body piercing or tattooing

HIV can be transmitted through sharing needles and syringes, and by having body piercing and tattooing done with used needles.

  • To avoid transmission of HIV when injecting drugs
  • Don’t share needles, syringes or other injecting equipment.
  • To avoid transmission of HIV when having body piercing and tattooing:
  • Go to a licensed studio (registered premises) where needles and other equipment are properly sterilised or discarded after use. This also protects you from other viruses such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C.


HIV can be passed on from a HIV positive mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth, or through breastfeeding. In Australia, women with HIV who are pregnant are given HIV treatment before and during pregnancy. If you have HIV, and you are pregnant or planning to have a baby, it is important to talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
It is recommended that mothers with HIV do not breastfeed. Speak to your doctor about other ways of feeding your baby.

Blood transfusions and blood products

In Australia, blood transfusions are safe. Donated blood and all blood products are checked for HIV and people who are HIV positive cannot donate blood. However, blood transfusions in some overseas countries may not be s

How can I find out if I have HIV?

You can find out by having a blood test. There are different types of tests available. Speak to your doctor about which one is best for you.

HIV tests are available free at sexual health clinics located across Australia. At the clinics, you do not have to give your name or have a Medicare card. You can also get the test(s) from your doctor.

Strict confidentiality is guaranteed at all times. In Australia, it is against the law for any health care professional to discuss your private information with others.

How do I know if someone has HIV?

You can’t tell ‘just by looking’ if someone has HIV/AIDS. Most people who have the virus look healthy and have no symptoms. In fact, many people who have HIV don’t know it themselves. The only way to know is through a HIV test.

The above information is adapted from the Multicultural HIV and Hepatitis website, mhahs.org.au