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Research Summary

Alcohol May Increase Oral Mucosal Transmission of HIV

The HIV virus can infect oral mucosal cells. A number of variables determine the likelihood of infection, such as viral load and host defense mechanisms. To examine whether alcohol weakens these defenses and facilitates transmission, researchers measured the effects of various concentrations of ethanol (0%–4%) on the efficiency of infection of oral epithelial cells with HIV.

Primary oral epithelial cells (POEs) treated with 4% ethanol—similar to the concentration of alcohol found in most beers—had a 3- to 6-fold higher susceptibility of infection (i.e., more cell colonies infected) than did POEs not exposed to ethanol. In addition, treated POEs had increased HIV RNA levels.


This in vitro study suggests that alcohol may play a role in oral HIV transmission. These results from the laboratory may prove useful when counseling patients about the risks of oral sex.

Joseph Conigliaro, MD, MPH


Zheng J, Yang OO, Xie Y, et al. Ethanol stimulation of HIV infection of oral epithelial cells. JAIDS. 2004;37(4):1445–1453.