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Telling your sexual partners

telling partners

If you’ve just been diagnosed with HIV, you’ll be thinking about whether to tell your partner, whether they’re long-term or casual. One thing you (and they) may not realise is that if you’re on effective treatment and have an undetectable viral load, you cannot pass on HIV.

What do I need to think about?

Your partner may need to have an HIV test. If you've had unprotected sex recently, your partner may need to wait for a few weeks before testing to make sure the result is accurate.

You may be in a long-term or casual relationship or you might just have sex with someone once. In each of these situations the decisions you make about telling a partner will be different.

If you're on effective treatment and have an undetectable viral load, you cannot pass on HIV, but condoms will protect you against other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

What is protected sex?

Protected sex means using a male or female condom during sex if one of you has HIV and a detectable viral load.

Condoms also protect you against other STIs and unplanned pregnancies.

Condoms should be used with water-based lubricant as oil-based lube weakens them.

HIV treatment is also a form of protection.The PARTNER study found that if you're on effective treatment and have an undetectable viral load, you cannot pass on HIV.

The Partners PrEP study found that it can take up to six months on treatment for some people to become undetectable.

How HIV treatment stops HIV being passed on:

  1. A person with HIV who is taking treatment and has an undetectable viral load cannot pass on HIV.
  2. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a course of HIV drugs taken by an HIV negative person to lower the chance of infection. When taken correctly, PrEP significantly reduces the chances of becoming HIV positive.
  3. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a month-long course of HIV medication taken by an HIV negative person after possible exposure to reduce the chance of getting HIV. When started in time, PEP can stop HIV infection after sex without a condom (or other exposure) with someone who is infectious - but it does not work every time.

If you decide to stop using condoms it's a good idea to speak to your HIV doctor or nurse to make sure your viral load is undetectable.

What are the risks of telling a partner?

It' helpful to think about the different reactions partners may have to hearing about your HIV diagnosis. Hopefully your partner will be supportive but it' always possible that they may react badly. They may also not be aware that if you're on effective treatment and your viral load is undetectable, you cannot pass on HIV.

Some people face particularly difficult situations. You may live with your partner and be worried about losing your home, for example, or you may be worried about domestic problems or violence. If you feel you need some support when making a decision you will be able to talk to someone in your clinic, a local support group or THT Direct.

Does the law say I have to tell my partner about my HIV status?

If you're having protected sex there's no law saying you must tell people that you have HIV - it's your choice whether you tell sexual partners.

However, in England and Wales there is a risk of being prosecuted for reckless transmission of HIV if:

  • you had sex with someone who didn’t know you had HIV
  • you knew you had HIV at that time
  • you understood how HIV is transmitted
  • you had sex without a condom, and
  • you transmitted HIV to that person.

The law in Scotland is largely the same, except that a case can also be brought if transmission hasn't taken place but someone has been put at risk of transmission without their consent or knowledge.

You can read more in our Law section.

What are the benefits of telling my partner?

One benefit of telling sexual partners about your HIV status is that they can find out more about protected sex including learning about PrEP and PEP.

Do I need to tell my previous partners?

Whether you tell previous partners can depend upon a number of factors such as what your relationship was like, the type of sex you had whether it was protected. Find out more about risk from different types of sex.

Telling previous sexual partners can be difficult and you can ask staff at your HIV clinic to contact your ex-partners and sexual contacts for you. They can do this without giving any of your details away.

  1. Long-term partners
  2. Casual partners

Long-term partners

If you've just been diagnosed with HIV and you’re in a relationship, you'll be thinking about whether to tell your partner.

How will my partner react if I tell them about my HIV status?

Talking to your long-term partner about your HIV status can be very emotional for both of you. Your partner may not react in the way you expect and there may be concern about the risk of HIV being passed on. It may be that they're unaware of the recent findings that if you're on effective treatment and your viral load is undetectable, you cannot pass on HIV.

Your partner might need to have an HIV test and may need to wait for a few weeks before testing to make sure the result is accurate, which can be stressful.

They may want to find out about whether taking PrEP might be a good idea for them if your viral load is detectable.

How can I help my partner understand more about HIV?

Your partner may be anxious about your health and it can be useful to have some leaflets to hand that you can show them to reassure them. You could download our Understanding HIV leaflet or The Basics range published by NAM. Once people realise you can lead a normal life with HIV they may be better able to support you.

They might like to find out more about the PARTNER study which found that people on effective treatment with undetectable viral load cannot pass on HIV.

Remember that it might take up to six months on treatment to become undetectable.

Another idea is to take your partner to one of your clinic appointments so that they can meet your doctor and ask questions.

Casual partners

When thinking about telling a casual sexual partner about your HIV it's worth thinking about why you want to tell them and whether the sex you had was protected.

The reasons you have for telling (or not telling) may depend upon the kind of relationship you want to have. For example, do you plan to see the person just once or are you hoping for a longer relationship?

It may also depend upon the kind of sex you want to have. If there is no risk of passing on HIV, some people see no reason to talk about their HIV status.

Others tell partners so that it’s easier to make informed decisions together about sex.

If you have unprotected sex, you know you have HIV, you understand how HIV is transmitted, you have not told your partner you have HIV and you then infect them, you could be prosecuted for reckless transmission.

If you have just met someone, you might not feel that you know enough about them to guess their reaction, or to judge whether they will respect your privacy. If you meet the person somewhere like a bar or party, talking about HIV can feel out of place.

Some people prefer to talk about their HIV status in a more neutral environment, at a later date or wait until they have got to know the person better. Other people drop HIV into the conversation very early on, in a casual and matter-of-fact way, so that if the other person cannot accept it, no time is lost.

More information:



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  • When I was single, one reason I liked to disclose to casual sex partners was because being open made me feel more relaxed.

    My technique was to usually wait until some kissing happened and then say: 'Hey, I can see where this is going but before we go any further, you need to know something so you can make a proper choice. You can respond any way you want; it's totally cool. I'm HIV+.'

    Sometimes, I'd have to go over a few facts about safer sex. I almost never got a rejection. My disclosure was always welcomed, often followed by 'thanks for telling me, but it doesn't matter' and then a huge snog.

    The last time I disclosed in this way, the other person said 'me too', we started seeing each other, he moved in after six months, and we've been together now for six years (civil partnership in 2009).

    I know rejection can be very painful and fear of rejection quite overwhelming, but by disclosing often my experience has been that over time I developed a certain resilience and the whole process became easier and easier.

    Posted 02:35 Fri 28 Jan 2011
  • I think it is a good idea to disclose before the relationship become too serious.This is because the person will make an informed decision to be with you or not.

    I had to ask my clinic to contact my ex hubby because we had lived together for so many years and I was wooried about his health.It was up to him to go and get tested or not.

    Posted 11:23 Sun 10 Feb 2013
  • The information on this page is helpful. However, I think it would have helped if there was a mention to the relevance of ones viral load.
    As you will be aware if you have an 'accident' and your viral load is undetectable then the HIV negative partner will not be prescribed PEP.
    Its explaining the science that's important and then allowing people to make informed decisions.
    I've recently told the guy that I've been seeing that I was positive. Its never an easy thing to do, however, so far he seems to be ok with it, more so because he is aware that I have an undetectable viral load.

    Posted 09:15 Thu 10 Sep 2015

The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 10/2/2015 by Anna Peters

Date due for the next review: 12/3/2018

Content Author: Kerri Virani

Current Owner: Health trainers

More information:

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National Center for Biotechnology Information
US National Library of Medicine
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HIV treatment as prevention and HPTN 052, Cohen MS1, McCauley M, Gamble TR
National Center for Boiotechnology Information
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Sexual Activity Without Condoms and Risk of HIV Transmission in Serodifferent Couples When the HIV-Positive Partner Is Using Suppressive Antiretroviral Therapy, Journal of the American Medical Association: Alison J. Rodger, MD; Valentina Cambiano, PhD; Tina Bruun, RN; Pietro Vernazza, MD; Simon Collins; Jan van Lunzen, PhD; Giulio Maria Corbelli; Vicente Estrada, MD; Anna Maria Geretti, MD; Apostolos Beloukas, PhD; David Asboe, FRCP; Pompeyo Viciana, MD1; Félix Gutiérrez, MD; Bonaventura Clotet, PhD; Christian Pradier, MD; Jan Gerstoft, MD; Rainer Weber, MD; Katarina Westling, MD; Gilles Wandeler, MD; Jan M. Prins, PhD; Armin Rieger, MD; Marcel Stoeckle, MD; Tim Kümmerle, PhD; Teresa Bini, MD; Adriana Ammassari, MD; Richard Gilson, MD; Ivanka Krznaric, PhD; Matti Ristola, PhD; Robert Zangerle, MD; Pia Handberg, RN; Antonio Antela, PhD; Sris Allan, FRCP; Andrew N. Phillips, PhD; Jens Lundgren, MD, JAMA. 2016;316(2):171-181. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.5148

Viral load, Michael Carter, Greta Hughson, NAM, Aidsmap, March 2014

More confidence on zero risk: still no transmissions seen from people with an undetectable viral load in PARTNER study, Gus Cairns, NAM, Aidsmap, July 2016

Open your eyes to STIs, NHS Choices, Nov 2015

When sex goes wrong, NHS Choices, Nov 2015

Pre exposure prophylaxis, Roger Pebody, NAM, Aidsmap, October 2016

Can post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) stop me getting HIV?, NHS Choices, Sep 2015

Can PEP stop me getting HIV?, NHS Choices, September 2013

Window periods, June 2012, NAM aidsmap

How soon should PEP be used?, March 2011, NAM aidsmap

Prosecutions for HIV Transmission, May 2010, National AIDS Trust

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