Why is HIV rarely transmitted by oral secretions? Saliva can disrupt orally shed, infected leukocytes

Samuel Baron, Joyce Poast, Miles W. Cloyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


Background: Oral transmission of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by the millions of HIV-infected individuals is a rare event, even when infected blood and exudate is present. Saliva of viremic individuals usually contains only noninfectious components of HIV indicating virus breakdown. Objective: To determine whether unknown HIV inhibitory mechanisms may explain the almost complete absence of infectious HIV in the saliva. Methods: Since most of the infectious HIV that is shed mucosally by asymptomatic individuals is found in, produced by, and transmitted by infected mononuclear leukocytes, we determined whether saliva, which is hypotonic, may disrupt these infected cells, thereby preventing virus multiplication and cell-to-cell transmission of HIV. Specifically, we measured (1) whether mononuclear leukocytes were lysed by saliva and (2) whether the lysis by saliva inhibits the multiplication of HIV and other viruses in infected leukocytes and other cells. Results: Saliva rapidly disrupted 90% or more of blood mononuclear leukocytes and other cultured cells. Concomitantly, there was a 10 000-fold or higher inhibition of the multiplication of HIV and surrogate viruses. Further experiments indicated that the cell disruption is due to the hypotonicity of saliva. Conclusions: Hypotonic disruption may be a major mechanism by which saliva kills infected mononuclear leukocytes and prevents their attachment to mucosal epithelial cells and production of infectious HIV, thereby preventing transmission. Implications for the known oral HIV transmission by milk and seminal fluid, as well as potential oral transmission to contacts and health care workers, are considered. This effective salivary defense may be applicable medically to interdict vaginal, rectal, and oral transmission of HIV by infected cells in seminal fluid or milk by the use of anticellular substances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-310
Number of pages8
JournalArchives of Internal Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 8 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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