WebMD > 

HIV Risk and Prevention: What Do You Need to Know?

HIV Risk and Prevention: What Do You Need to Know?

This article is for people who might be at risk for HIV, or anyone who wants to learn more about it. The goal of this activity is to help you talk to and work with your doctor about how to prevent HIV.

You will learn about:

  • What HIV is

  • Who may be at risk for HIV

  • How to help protect yourself

  • Getting tested for HIV and what the results could mean

  • Questions to ask your doctor and healthcare team

Test Your Knowledge

What Is HIV?

HIV is a virus that attacks your immune system, specifically certain white blood cells called CD4 that help you fight off infections. Having fewer of these cells means your immune system can weaken and you can become more likely to get other infections. 

While there’s no cure for HIV, it can be prevented and treated. If not treated properly, HIV may lead to AIDS, which may lead to early death.

How HIV May Be Spread

Some myths about HIV are that it is spread by kissing, breathing the same air, or sharing eating utensils with someone who has HIV. But the truth is that the most common way that HIV can be spread is through anal or vaginal sexual contact. You may be at risk if you have:

  • Unprotected sex (without a condom) with someone who is living with HIV

  • A history of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

  • Multiple sexual partners

People in committed or monogamous sexual relationships may also be at risk if they don’t know their partner’s HIV status.

Other ways that HIV may be spread can include:

  • Pregnancy or breastfeeding. If the mother is living with HIV it may be passed on to the baby before or during birth or through breast milk

  • Blood. If blood containing HIV enters your bloodstream

How to Help Protect Yourself

HIV is preventable. Ways you can help protect yourself include:

  • Practice safe sex, including wearing a condom during sexual activity

  • Talk to your sex partner about their sexual history, including about HIV and STIs, before having sex

  • Take medicine that can lower your chances of HIV

  • Don’t have sex by practicing abstinence and finding other ways that you and your partner can be intimate

  • Don’t share needles or drug injection equipment

What Is PrEP?

PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis and is a medicine prescribed by a doctor that you can take to help lower your chances of getting HIV, even if you’re exposed to it. So if you find out that you’ve been exposed to HIV and were already taking PrEP properly, there is a very good chance that you are protected.

PrEP is available as a pill or an injection -- talk to your doctor about if PrEP may be right for you and which one would be most appropriate

Ashley talks about why she chose to take PrEP and what her experience has been like.

Who Can Take PrEP?

PrEP has been available for about 10 years and has been proven to be safe and effective at preventing the spread of HIV. Talk to your doctor or healthcare team member about if PrEP may be right for you regardless of your gender or gender identity, your sexual identity or preference, or where you live.

You may want to consider taking PrEP if you:

  • Are not currently living with HIV

  • Don’t know your sex partner’s HIV status or sexual history

  • May be considering pregnancy with a partner who is living with HIV

  • Use injection drugs

Getting Tested for HIV

The only way you can find out if you’ve been exposed to HIV is to get tested.

Types of tests include:

  • Blood test: Your doctor or centers in the United States often have testing available for free or at a low cost. They may also offer counselling and resources

  • Self-test kit: Pharmacies or medical clinics may have tests that include a cotton swab that you use to get a sample of saliva from your gums. Results are often ready within 20 minutes at home

  • Mail-in test: This includes a finger stick to get a few drops of your blood. You or your doctor can order the test online and mail the blood sample to a lab. Then your doctor can let you know what the results are

What the Results Could Mean

Talk to your doctor or healthcare team member about what the test results are and what they can mean for you.

A negative test could mean that either you are not currently living with HIV, or you may have been exposed but there isn’t enough of the virus in your body (your viral load) yet. It could take up to 6 months for the viral load to increase enough to be detected by the blood test.

A positive test could mean that you are living with HIV. Be sure to talk to your doctor or healthcare team member about next steps. There is medicine that is safe and effective at lowering HIV viral load in the body.

Regardless of what your test results are, it is important to keep practicing safe sex and to protect yourself and others.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If you have questions about HIV, you should find a doctor or healthcare team member who you feel comfortable talking to about things such as your sexual history.

Questions you can ask to get the conversation started can include:

  • What’s my risk for HIV?

  • Should I get tested?

  • What can I do to protect myself and others and help prevent the spread of HIV?

  • Do you recommend PrEP for me?

Test Your Knowledge

Survey questions


You have successfully completed the program HIV Risk and Prevention: What Do You Need to Know?

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

What Are HIV and AIDS?


Questions to Ask Your Doctor About PrEP

HIV Self-Testing

Find a Testing Location

Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC.

Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has no relevant financial relationships.


Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh

Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.

Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh, has no relevant financial relationships.


Share this:

URAC: Accredited Health Web Site HonCode: Health on the Net Foundation AdChoices