The Truth Behind Common HIV and AIDS Myths, According to Doctors


When the first case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was reported in America in 1981, there was tons of inaccurate information spread about it. Since the infection was mostly diagnosed in gay men during this time, it was incorrectly believed that only they could contract it—and was referred to as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), as HIV charity Avert explains. Of course, we know a lot more about HIV/AIDS now than we did nearly 40 years ago, including that it can affect anyone, no matter their gender or sexual orientation. But there are still plenty of myths that surround the condition. Ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, we spoke with doctors and experts to find out the facts behind these common HIV/AIDS myths that still persist today.

Myth: HIV and AIDS are the same thing.

Fact: As previously mentioned, HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus—and AIDS is the acronym for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which are two distinct conditions. As the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' official HIV database explains, AIDS is "the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body's immune system is badly damaged because of the virus."

A person who is HIV-positive does not necessarily have AIDS; in fact, chances are high these days that they never will develop it, thanks to advanced medical treatments. By the end of 2015, an estimated 1.1 million people in the U.S. were living with HIV, but in 2017, only 17,803 individuals received AIDS diagnoses.

Myth: HIV is a death sentence.

Fact: Though this may have been true in the past, in the modern era, there are highly effective treatments available that have rendered HIV a chronic condition with little impact on lifespan, according to Amesh A. Adalja, MD, FIDSA, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. In fact, a 2017 study published in the journal AIDS found that while early HIV treatments gave infected individuals an average life expectancy of 11.8 years, modern versions of antiretroviral drugs (ART) have raised that to 54.9 years. Even celebrities like former NBA star Magic Johnson and Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness live with HIV—and yet you'd never know it, given how healthy, happy, and asymptomatic they are.

Myth: HIV is always transmittable.

Fact: "It has been shown that those with HIV who achieve viral suppression—[or] an undetectable viral load—are unable to transmit the virus to others," says Adalja. In other words, HIV-positive individuals with undetectable levels of the virus cannot transmit it.

However, that does not mean a person with HIV is cured once their virus is undetectable. "An undetectable viral load means that so few copies of the virus are present in the blood that today's monitoring tests are unable to detect them. Even with an undetectable viral load, however, an HIV-positive person still is HIV-positive," Emily Land, MA, writes on the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's website. "That is why it is important for people living with HIV to continue to take their HIV medications even when they are undetectable."

Myth: HIV patients will definitely pass it on to their children.

Fact: "Males with HIV can have sperm 'washed' and made free of HIV, and females with HIV whose viral load is suppressed pose little risk to their fetuses," Adalja explains. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of babies born HIV-positive has declined by more than 95 percent since the early 1990s.

Myth: There is no way of preventing HIV/AIDS.

Fact: Using condoms during sexual intercourse is an easy way to avoid becoming infected with HIV. And if you're at high risk of HIV transmission, you can take a drug called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, to stay infection-free. According to the CDC, when someone taking PrEP is exposed to HIV, the virus is unable to grow and multiply. When taken daily, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV through sex by about 99 percent.

Myth: HIV/AIDS can be transmitted through kissing.

Fact: In the early years following the initial discovery of HIV, many felt that even minimal contact with someone with the virus could lead to infection. But according to Laurence Gerlis, MA, MB, and lead clinician at SameDayDoctor, "[HIV] does not live very long outside the body and casual contact cannot transmit it. Similarly, transmission cannot occur by touching or kissing."

Myth: You can get HIV from saliva and sweat.

Fact: HIV cannot survive in water. Therefore, "a person cannot contract HIV from the saliva, sweat, or tears of a person with HIV, providing these water-based components do not have blood in them," as Medical News Today explains.

Myth: Female-to-female HIV transmission is impossible.

Fact: HIV transmission between two women is rare, but it's possible. A 2014 article published by the CDC in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report explains that female-to-female transmission can occur after unprotected exposure to vaginal fluids and blood from menstruation, or after exposure to blood following trauma during rough sex.

Myth: Using lubricant during sex increases one's risk of contracting HIV.

Fact: According to the CDC, using both water-based and silicon-based lubricants can actually help prevent the transmission of HIV during sex since they help keep condoms from breaking or slipping. However, the CDC warns that oil-based lubricants and other products containing oil—ones like hand lotion and petroleum jelly—should not be used with latex condoms, given that they make them more prone to breakage.

Myth: Circumcised men are less likely to contract HIV.

Fact: This HIV myth is only a partial truth. Though the CDC explains that circumcised men are less likely than uncircumcised ones to get HIV from infected female partners, "the evidence about the benefits of circumcision among gay and bisexual men is inconclusive."

Myth: HIV/AIDS can be spread through mosquito bites.

Fact: There are plenty of diseases that can be spread via mosquitoes, but that's not the case for HIV/AIDS. According to the AIDS Foundation of South Africa, "when insects bite, they do not inject the blood of the person or animal they have last bitten. Also, HIV lives for only a short time inside an insect."

Myth: If two sexual partners are both HIV-positive, they don't need to use protection.

Fact: Even if two people are both HIV-positive, they should still use a condom when having sex to avoid contracting drug-resistant strains of the virus.

"Two sexual partners who are both HIV-positive could have different strains of the virus and, if they have unprotected sex, they could infect one another with another strain, leading to their immune systems being attacked by two different forms of the virus," the AIDS Foundation of South Africa explains. "This could further weaken their immune systems and might require a change to their treatment as different HIV strains require different drugs."

Myth: HIV/AIDS is becoming less common.

Fact: While it's true that fewer people are dying from AIDS than they were 30 years ago and that fewer babies are being born with HIV, that doesn't mean the epidemic is over. In fact, the number of people diagnosed with HIV every year remains steady, according to Rush University.

"We have not made a significant dent," Beverly Sha, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center, said in a statement on the university's website. "It's stayed [at] around 50,000 new cases annually in the U.S. for quite a few years now."