Preventing HIV

What’s safe sex?

The easiest way to protect yourself and your sex partners from passing on HIV and most STIs during sex is to use a condom and water-based lubricant (lube).

You may hear talk of “safe sex”, “unsafe sex”, “protected sex” and “unprotected sex”.

Sex with condoms is called safe or protected sex because condoms keep people safe from HIV and most other STIs.

Sex without a condom is called unsafe or unprotected sex because it can put you or your partner at risk of getting HIV or another STI.

What about being careful choosing sex partners?

Some people think that they don’t need to use condoms as “protection” from HIV because they’d be able to tell if their sex partner had HIV.

You can’t tell someone has HIV or an STI by looking at them.

Even if a new sex partner tests for HIV regularly, it’s still important to use condoms. Tests for HIV can only detect HIV after the person has been infected with HIV for six weeks or so. Before that the test won’t pick it up but the HIV is very infectious during this time. This is called the HIV test “window period”.

Do not share drug injecting equipment

If you inject drugs it’s very important not to share injecting equipment – don’t share needles or syringes.

A needle or syringe may look clean but there could be a tiny amount of blood you can’t see – enough for getting HIV.

You can get disposable syringes in NSP (needle and syringe program) services, some chemists, health clinics, and community centres. Find out where you can get a supply so you always have some handy.

Don’t feel shamed about getting disposable syringes. The places that hand them out know you’re doing the right thing. They won’t judge you or lecture you about using drugs.

Safe tattoos

It’s best to get tattooed in a tattoo shop because you can make sure they use clean equipment.

Looking out for cuts

HIV can be transmitted through open cuts. If you have an open cut on your body cover it up, especially when playing contact sports.

Is there a vaccine against HIV?

No. There’s no vaccine to protect people from getting HIV yet. Scientists are working on this.

What’s PrEP?

The drug Truvada is usually taken by people with HIV to treat HIV.

It’s also possible to take Truvada pills to prevent HIV. This is called ‘PrEP’, which is short for pre-exposure prophylaxis – taking the pill before sex, or pre-exposure to the risk of getting HIV.

Some people take PrEP because they know their partner has HIV and they want extra protection. Other people take PrEP because they have lots of casual sex and they want extra protection in case one of their sex partners has HIV.

Truvada is a prescription drug. You can only buy Truvada from chemists if you have a doctor’s prescription.

Truvada for HIV prevention – for PrEP – is very expensive if you buy it in Australia. Some people buy Truvada, or generic versions, online. To buy Truvada online you will still need a prescription from your doctor.

If you are interested in PrEP, talk to your doctor about whether it would be a good option for you. PrEP only works if you take your doctor’s advice about when to take it, and how long to stay on it.

What’s PEP?

PEP is different to PrEP.

PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis. PEP means taking prescription tablets after you have had unsafe sex or shared drug injecting equipment.

If you’ve had unsafe sex or shared injecting or tattooing equipment with someone who has HIV, PEP tablets can kill off any HIV in your system.

It’s important to get PEP within 72 hours of having unsafe sex, or sharing injecting or tattoo equipment.

If you have unsafe sex or share a needle, go to your local sexual health clinic, hospital emergency department or GP as soon as possible and ask about PEP.

If your health service or doctor isn’t able to prescribe PEP, ask them to call the closest sexual health service to find out where you might be able to get it.


People now talk about HIV ‘combination prevention’ as part of the new ‘prevention toolbox’. The toolbox includes PrEP and PEP, as well as other new ways of preventing HIV.

Treatment as prevention or TasP

Treatment as prevention refers to the fact that people with HIV who are on treatment can have so little HIV in their blood that it is undetectable in tests. This is called having an ‘undetectable viral load’.

Research has shown that when a person with HIV has an undetectable viral load it is highly unlikely that HIV will be transmitted during sex or sharing injecting equipment – their undetectable viral load is acting as a type of prevention.

If most people with HIV can access treatment and reach undetectable viral load, HIV transmission rates will go down dramatically.

Needle and syringe programs

Needle and syringe programs or ‘NSPs’ are services that provide disposable syringes to injecting drug users.

Introduction of NSPs in Australia is the main reason why rates of HIV among injecting drug users have remained low compared to other countries.

Rates of HIV among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who inject drugs are higher than for non-Indigenous Australians. It’s important to encourage people in our community to access NSPs and not be shamed – NSP staff will know they’re doing the right thing and won’t judge or lecture about using drugs.

Opioid substitution therapy

Opioid substitution therapy is where people who are dependent on an illegal drug are given a legal drug instead. These legal drugs are called pharmacotherapies.

In Australia the main pharmacotherapies used for people who are dependent on heroin are Methadone, Buprenorphine, and Naltrexone.

Detox and rehabilitation programs

Detox and rehabilitation programs can assist people to stop or reduce drug or alcohol dependence.

Programs can involve counselling and group support, residential rehabilitation and detox, as well as opioid substitution therapy.