Talking to a partner about my HIV status
Reviewed by our clinical team
Just a few decades ago, HIV was so poorly understood and that most people who got infected would eventually die as a result of the virus. It also meant you couldn't get life insurance or certain jobs. The stigma around HIV was huge. Today the story is completely different.
In the UK, testing and treatment for HIV has come a long way. Now, with early diagnosis and ongoing treatment, the average HIV-positive person can expect to live a long and healthy life, comparable to that of an HIV-negative person. People who are taking effective treatment are also able to reach an undetectable viral load, which means they can’t pass the virus on during sex.
Despite this change, there’s still a stigma surrounding HIV, which is why some people who’ve just been diagnosed might be nervous about telling friends, family and – in particular – sexual partners.
If you’re in this position and you’d like some advice, read on.
Do I legally have to disclose my HIV status to a new partner?
In England and Wales, there’s no legal requirement to tell people you have HIV if there’s no risk of you passing it on e.g. if you’re having protected sex. This means using a condom and/or having an undetectable viral load.
However, you might be prosecuted if you knowingly put someone at risk of HIV without letting them know. In other words: you know you are HIV positive, and you have sex without a condom and/or your viral load is not undetectable yet. If you don't tell them about the risk of HIV transmission, they can prosecute you if they get HIV.
In Scotland the law goes even further, as it’s possible to be prosecuted for putting someone at risk of HIV, even if transmission didn’t occur (2).
Should I tell all my sexual partners that I have HIV?
If you have HIV and your viral load isn't undetectable yet, there is a chance you could pass it on. That's why it's important to tell any sexual partner if you're having or are planning to have unprotected sex. You should also consider telling ex-partners, because you might have passed the infection on before you got diagnosed.
Other than that, it’s up to you. Some people might want to avoid telling casual sexual partners, which is OK if you’re using condoms. For people with an undetectable viral load, it’s not possible to pass on the virus, which means there’s no risk for the partner – in this case, there may not be a need to mention it.
The general rule is: if you’re not putting someone else at risk, it’s up to you whether you talk about your diagnosis.
Can someone tell my partners for me?
If you don’t want to speak to partners yourself, you can ask staff at your HIV clinic to do this for you. They can contact any people who might be at risk and tell them they should get tested for HIV without revealing your details.
How to speak to a long-term partner about your HIV diagnosis
For most people, the hardest conversation will be with a long-term partner.
You might be really concerned about how they’ll react, and in particular that they’ll be angry with you for putting them at risk – whether this is the case or not. However, while there’s no way to avoid feeling nervous, you’ll almost certainly feel a weight off your shoulders once the conversation has happened.
To prepare for the process, get some advice from staff at the HIV clinic where you’re having treatment. You can also get some information together for your partner to look at – this is a good idea if they don’t have much knowledge about HIV and how it’s transmitted.
Your partner may not be aware, for instance, that whilst on effective treatment most HIV positive people will reach an undetectable viral load, which means they can’t pass the virus on. Or they might not know that not all kinds of sex are high-risk for transmission.
If you’d like to help your partner learn more, you can direct them to the Terrence Higgins Trust or NAM – two excellent resources for simple and straightforward information about HIV. It might also help to take them along to future appointments you have with your HIV healthcare team.
Getting tested for HIV
If you think you might have been exposed to HIV, it’s a good idea to get tested. You can get tested for free at NHS centres, including sexual health clinics, or you can get a private test through a trusted service like Online Doctor. Find out more here.