Reducing Your Sexual Risk
HIV can be spread by having unprotected sexual contact with an HIV-positive person. "Unprotected" means sex (anal, oral, or vaginal) without barrier protection, like a condom.
Some of the ways to reduce your risk of getting HIV through sexual contact include:
- Don't have sex. Sex (anal, oral, or vaginal) is the main way that HIV is transmitted. If you aren't having sexual contact, you are 100% protected from getting HIV in that way.
- Be monogamous. Being monogamous means: 1) You are in a sexual relationship with only one person and 2) Both of you are having sex only with each other. Having only one sex partner reduces your risk of getting HIV—but monogamy won't protect you completely unless you know for sure that both you and your partner are not infected with HIV.
- Get tested and know your partner's status: Knowing your own status is important for both your health and the health of your partner. Talking about your HIV status can be difficult or uncomfortable—but it's important to start the discussion BEFORE you have sex.
You need to ask your sexual partners:
- Have you been tested for HIV?
- When was the last time you had an HIV test?
- What were the results of your HIV test?
- Use condoms consistently and correctly. To reduce your risk of getting HIV or other STIs, you must use a new condom with every act of anal, oral, or vaginal sex. You also have to use condoms correctly, to keep them from slipping off or breaking.
You have to use the right kind of condom too. Latex condoms are highly effective against HIV. (If you are allergic to latex, you can use polyurethane or polyisoprene condoms.) Lambskin condoms will NOT protect you from HIV, because the virus is small enough to slip through lambskin.
You should always use a water-based lubricant when you use a condom for anal or vaginal sex. Lubricants reduce friction and help keep the condom from breaking. Do NOT use an oil-based lubricant (like petroleum jelly, hand lotion, or cooking oil). Oil-based lubricants can damage condoms and make them less effective.
Both male condoms and female condoms will help protect you against HIV and other STIs. To learn more about how to use a condom correctly, see the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Tips For Using Condoms And Dental Dams.
Condoms do not provide 100% protection against all STIs—but you are ALWAYS safer using a condom! You can get certain STIs, like herpes or HPV, from contact with your partner's bare skin, even if one of you is wearing a condom. But condoms lessen the risk of infection even for those types of STIs.
Condoms with the spermicide Nonoxynol-9 are NOT recommended for STI/HIV prevention. Nonoxynol-9 (N9) irritates rectal and vaginal walls, which increases the chance of HIV infection if infected body fluids do come in contact with them.
For more information, see CDC's How To Use A Condom Consistently And Correctly.
All sexual practices can be made "safer"—meaning you can lower your risk of transmitting/contracting STIs and HIV—but some activities are much safer than others. Here's a list of sexual activities and the risks they pose for transmitting HIV or other STIs:
Receptive Anal Sex (Bottoming)
- The odds of getting HIV from "bottoming" without a condom are higher than any other sexual behavior.
- HIV has been found in pre-cum (pre-ejaculatory fluid), so having your partner pull out before he cums (ejaculates) may not decrease your risk.
- Do not douche before sex. Douching irritates the lining of your rectum and this can increase your risk for getting HIV. If you are concerned about cleanliness, clean the rectum gently, with a soapy finger and water.
- If you are bottoming, always use plenty of water-based lubricant with a latex, polyurethane, or polyisoprene condom. This will help to minimize damage to the rectum during sex and to prevent the transmission of STIs (including HIV).
Insertive Anal Sex (Topping)
- "Topping" without a condom is considered a high-risk behavior for transmission of HIV and other STIs.
- Your partner may have sores or other signs of infection in his/her rectum that you can't see. If you have tears or cuts on your penis, HIV can enter your body this way.
- It is possible for blood and other fluids containing HIV to infect the cells in the urethra of your penis.
Receptive Vaginal Sex (Risks For Women)
- Vaginal sex without a condom is considered a high-risk behavior for HIV infection.
- During vaginal sex, HIV is transmitted from men to women much more easily than from women to men.
- The risk for transmission is increased if you currently have another STI or vaginal infection. Many STIs and vaginal infections are "silent"—meaning you don't have any symptoms, so you may not be aware that you are infected.
- Many barrier methods that are used to prevent pregnancy (diaphragm, cervical cap, etc.) DO NOT protect against STIs or HIV infection because they still allow infected semen to come in contact with the lining of your vagina.
- Oral or hormonal contraceptives (i.e., birth control pills) DO NOT protect against STIs or HIV infection.
- Female condoms DO prevent against HIV infection, if you use them correctly and consistently.
Insertive Vaginal Sex (Risks For Men)
- Unprotected vaginal sex is less risky for the male partner than the female partner—but there is still a risk that the male partner can contract HIV and other STIs.
- Some STIs are "silent," meaning that a woman may have an STI but not have any symptoms. Your partner may not know she has an infection, so it is important to use a condom.
- Use a new condom with a water-based lubricant every time you have insertive vaginal sex to prevent STIs, including HIV.
Performing Oral Sex On A Man
- You can get HIV by performing oral sex on your male partner, although the risk is not as great as it is with unprotected anal or vaginal sex.
- You are also at risk for getting other STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea.
- Your risk of contracting HIV is reduced if your male partner does not ejaculate (cum) in your mouth.
- Your risk of HIV is reduced if you do not have open sores or cuts in your mouth.
- Using condoms for oral sex reduces your risk of getting HIV or other STIs.
Receiving Oral Sex If You Are A Man
- There is less associated risk for HIV infection with this sexual activity.
- Your risk of HIV is reduced if you do not have open sores or cuts on your penis.
- There is a risk of contracting other STIs, including herpes.
Performing Oral Sex On A Woman
- HIV has been found in vaginal secretions, so there is a risk of contracting HIV from this activity.
- It is possible to contract other STIs from this activity.
- There are effective barriers you can use to protect you from contact with your partner's vaginal fluids. You can cut open an unlubricated condom and lay it over your partner's vulva. You can also use dental dams or non-microwaveable plastic wrap to protect against HIV and other STIs. (Plastic wrap that can be microwaved will not protect you—viruses are small enough to pass through that type of wrap.)
For more information on dental dams, please see the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Tips For Using Condoms And Dental Dams.
Receiving Oral Sex If You Are A Woman
- The risk for contracting HIV this way is significantly lower than for unprotected vaginal sex.
- There is still a risk of contracting other STIs, like herpes, and bacterial infections.
- You should use a barrier method (cut-open unlubricated condom, dental dam, or non-microwaveable plastic wrap) over your vulva to protect yourself from STIs.
Oral-Anal Contact (Rimming)
- The risk of getting HIV by rimming is very low—but this kind of sexual contact comes with a high risk of transmitting hepatitis A and B, parasites, and other bacteria to the partner who is doing the rimming.
- You should use a barrier method (cut-open unlubricated condom, dental dam, or non-microwaveable plastic wrap) over the anus to protect against infection.
Digital Stimulation (Fingering)
- There is a very small risk of getting HIV from fingering your partner if you have cuts or sores on your fingers and your partner has cuts or sores in the rectum or vagina.
- Use medical-grade gloves and lots of water-based lubricant to eliminate this risk.
- Using sex toys can be a safe practice, as long as you do not share your toys with your partner.
- If you share your toy with your partner, use a condom on the toy, if possible, and change the condom before your partner uses it.
- Clean your toys with soap and water, or a stronger disinfectant if indicated on the cleaning instructions. It is important to do this after each use!
These activities carry no risk of HIV transmission:
- Non-sexual massage
- Casual or dry kissing
- Masturbation (without your partner's body fluids)
- Frottage—also known as "dry humping" or body-to-body rubbing
There has been a lot of research over the past few years about the role male circumcision plays in preventing HIV infection. Many of these studies have indicated that male circumcision can decrease the male partner's risk of contracting HIV during heterosexual vaginal sex. In 2007, the World Health Organization reported that male circumcision reduced by 60% the transmission of HIV from women to men in three randomized, controlled studies in Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa.
There is much less available data for men who have sex with men and how circumcision might affect HIV transmission through anal sex. In addition, recent studies show that circumcision does NOT protect women from contracting HIV from male partners.
For more information on male circumcision and HIV, see CDC's Male Circumcision And Risk For HIV Transmission And Other Health Conditions: Implications For The United States.
Fact Sheets & Print Materials
- AIDSInfo – The Basics of HIV Prevention
- CDC - Factsheet: Oral Sex and HIV Risk
- CDC - Condom Fact Sheet In Brief
- CDC – Male Latex Condoms And Sexually Transmitted Disease
- CDC – HIV/AIDS & STDs
- CDC - Male Circumcision
Related Topics on AIDS.gov
Frequently Asked Questions
What kinds of sexual activity can transmit HIV?
Any form of sexual activity where there is a risk of exchanging infected body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal mucous) can transmit HIV. This includes anal, oral, and vaginal sex.
Is it possible to get HIV from oral sex?
It is possible for either partner to become infected with HIV through performing or receiving oral sex. While the level of risk is less than unprotected anal or vaginal sex, oral sex still carries a risk for HIV transmission. For more information, see CDC's Oral Sex And HIV Risk.
Am I at risk for HIV?
HIV can only be transmitted through certain body fluids. Specific behaviors may place you at higher risk for coming in contact with HIV. You may be at increased risk for HIV infection if you have:
- Injected drugs or steroids, while sharing needles or injection equipment ("works") with others
- Had unprotected sex (anal, oral, or vaginal) with men who have sex with men, multiple partners, or anonymous partners
- Exchanged sex for drugs or money
- Been diagnosed with, or treated for, hepatitis, tuberculosis, or a sexually transmitted infection
- Received a blood transfusion between 1978-1985
- Had unprotected sex with anyone who has any of the risk factors listed above
For more information, see CDC's HIV And AIDS: Are You At Risk?
How can I protect myself from HIV transmission?
The most effective ways to protect yourself from HIV are:
- Don't have sex (anal, oral, or vaginal)
- Limit your number of sex partners and know your partner's HIV status and your own
- Use a new condom every time you have sex
Other ways to protect yourself include:
- Don't inject illicit drugs—or use only clean needles and works and don't share your injecting equipment with others
- Make getting an HIV test part of your regular medical checkup
For more information, see CDC's HIV And AIDS: Are You At Risk?
Are condoms really effective for preventing HIV?
If you use them consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV. Research on the effectiveness of latex condoms in preventing HIV transmission is both comprehensive and conclusive. For more information, see CDC's Condom Fact Sheet In Brief.
Are the chances of getting HIV higher if you currently have, or have had, an STI?
Yes. Having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can increase your risk of becoming infected with HIV. In addition, STIs make people who already have HIV more infectious. If an HIV-positive person is also infected with another STI, that person is 3-5 times more likely than other HIV-infected persons to transmit HIV through sexual contact. For information on the connection between STIs and HIV, see CDC's HIV/AIDS & STDs.
Last revised: 06/18/2012