Myths about HIV and Aids

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of stigma around HIV and aids in our society. A lot of people are woefully misinformed about the impact that these diseases have on people and the help that’s available. So we’re here to help break some of those down. The Mix tackles some myths about HIV and Aids.

A young man is on the phone. He is busting HIV and aids myths.

Being diagnosed with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) isn’t necessarily the death sentence it one was. In fact, the number of people living in the UK with HIV has trebled since 1999. Yes, this isn’t exactly ideal – but it does prove that people with the virus have a higher life expectancy nowadays.

Whilst there is no cure for the different strains of HIV infection, thanks to a new range of drugs, such as antiretroviral treatments, people living with HIV don’t have to worry as much. They can keep their symptoms in check and live a relatively normal life with a healthy immune system.

We asked Rachael King, information officer for UK charity Be in the Know, to help us bust some of the more common myths about HIV and Aids.

Common HIV myths

HIV is something only gay people get

This is one of the many, myths about HIV and Aids that’s absolutely not true. “Within the UK, cases of HIV are more or less evenly spread between the gay and heterosexual communities,” says Rachael. “And we shouldn’t dismiss the fact that in the 80s and early 90s, it was mostly the gay community driving the education campaign around the virus. They have become very knowledgeable about it. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the rest of society.”

With modern drugs, you don’t need to worry about HIV

Nope. “It’s such a common attitude these days. You think you can go to a doctor (GP) or healthcare professional with any ailment, they’ll give you a quick fix and you’re on your way. HIV isn’t like that,” says Rachael. “There’s no cure, and we’re actually still very far away from that. Granted it’s easier to treat these days because the drugs have fewer side effects. Plus, there’s a move towards universal access, where people can sign up to treatment programs. But this is an extremely privileged situation to be in.”

You can catch HIV from saliva, toilet seats or discarded needles

Once again, false.This is part of those mix of HIV myths and facts that came up in the 80s, and has never really been laid to rest. To give you the medical explanation, in case you’re interested, HIV in saliva is so diluted that unless you’ve got a really bad case of bleeding gums, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to contract that way. The only real ways to transmit HIV is by a transferral of blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or breast milk.”

And unless you’re sharing needles, it’s unlikely you’ll catch HIV from a discarded syringe. This is cause the virus only survives for a very short time outside the human body. But beware: needles can transmit other diseases, like Hepatitis C. So don’t just go around using unsterilised ones.

You can’t contract HIV from oral sex

Untrue – semen or vaginal fluid can more definitely carry the disease. Essentially, if you’ve not been tested, condoms and/or dental dams are still recommended.

People with HIV look ill

Not necessarily. “In the primary infection stage, people usually suffer from headaches and flu-like symptoms,” says Rachael. “But generally we consider the virus to be symptomless. That being said, people don’t go around thinking they’re A-OK forever. The obvious signs manifest later, as the viral load increases,” she says. 

Regardless, you should never expect to be able to spot someone who has HIV instantly. And if you expose yourself to risky situations, just make sure you use a condom and get yourself checked accordingly.

If you have HIV, your child will be born with the virus

Potentially. “So much progress has been made in the field preventing mother-to-child transmission,” says Rachael.

As a result, by taking drugs from the third trimester til the end of pregnancy you can reduce the chance of passing the virus on to your child from 35 to just 1%. Defo something to look into.

The results of HIV tests aren’t confidential, and your employer might find out

100% false – the results are kept strictly confidential. “In the UK, there’s a very clever way of storing your records – they’re not kept by patient name, but by a number and date of birth. Basically, even your GP doesn’t have to know,” says Rachael (this is only the case if you go to a GUM clinic to get tested; if you go for the test at your Doctor’s surgery, they will of course know the results). 

You should also know that there’s no law that imposes an obligation on you to provide details about your health. But that, of course, doesn’t stop them from asking. Visit the Terrence Higgins Trust for more details about HIV and employment. And find out more about visiting a GUM clinic here. 

Being on the pill protects you from contracting HIV

Untrue. “One I hear a lot, which is really, really worrying!” says Rachael. If you take only one thing away from this article, please let it be that the pill offers no protection against STIs at all – so rubber up to avoid unprotected sex.

Hopefully our HIV myths and facts have helped you gain a better understanding of the virus. If you’re interested in finding additional information about sexual health, head over to our safe sex hub, where you’ll find a huge range of articles.

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By Louis Pattison

Updated on 28-Jun-2022