Reduce Your Risk

Decisions you make about the sex you have will control your risk of getting HIV (and other infections). Once you know how HIV is passed on, you then need to feel able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the kind of sex you’re happy with.

How is HIV passed on during sex?

HIV is a virus found in an infected person’s body fluids. Only in the following fluids is there enough HIV to infect someone:


  • vaginal fluid
  • breast milk
  • blood (also anal mucus, the lining covering the inside of the rectum)


  • semen
  • ‘pre-cum’ (the clear liquid that comes from a man’s penis when he is sexually excited)
  • blood (also anal mucus, the lining covering the inside of the rectum).

If during sex any of these fluids get from the body of someone with HIV into the body of a person who doesn’t have HIV, that person can also become infected.

Infection happens when the HIV gets from an infected body fluid into another person’s bloodstream via the delicate and absorbent mucous skin of the penis, vagina, lining of the rectum and sometimes the mouth or throat.

There’s not enough HIV to infect people in tears, sweat, saliva (spit) and urine or faeces.

What is safer sex?

‘Safer sex’ is sex that doesn’t allow body fluids to go from one person into another. Safer sex is very good at stopping the spread of HIV. It also lowers the risk of other sexually transmitted infections.

Penetrative sex is when a penis enters a mouth, vagina or anus. Unless a barrier (eg, a condom) is used HIV can be spread this way. Vaginal and anal sex are types of penetrative sex with the highest HIV risk: a male or female condom is the best barrier protection.

Oral sex is penetrative sex but with much lower HIV risk. If you’re worried about oral sex, a barrier such as a condom can be used. Any object entering another person is also penetrative sex and could carry body fluids (with HIV or other infections in them) from inside one person into another. To stop the spread of these infections, ‘sex toys’ such as vibrators and dildos need covering with a fresh condom for each person they enter.

Sex without penetration is also ‘safer sex’. Masturbating your partner is an example of low risk, non-penetrative sex that lots of people enjoy.

Only human…

Even when you know the facts it might not be easy to make sure you have safer sex.

It’s harder to play safe when you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

It’s harder to talk about condoms and safer sex once sex has started, so bring the subject up before then.

And just because someone you have sex with doesn’t mention condoms or HIV, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to not use protection. A partner may have HIV without knowing or, if they do know, find it difficult to tell people.

It would be wrong to think you can tell if someone has HIV by how they look or their age. People with HIV usually don’t look any different. If you assume that every person you have sex with might have HIV and so always have safer sex, that offers you a great deal of protection against getting HIV. Unless you’re absolutely sure of a partner’s HIV status, safer sex is the best choice to make.

If you’ve got questions or are worried about risks during sex, you can contact THT Direct.

Page content supplied by Copyright 2012 © Terrence Higgins Trust.

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