If you’re living with HIV, taking charge of your health is the single most important step you can take to get healthy – and stay healthy.
That means considering all your treatment options, choosing prevention methods, and knowing where to go for advice.
Fortunately, you don’t have to figure all this out on your own.
In today’s blog, we’ll walk through some of the questions we hear from our patients, and offer easy-to-understand information to empower your decisions.
Living with HIV today
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that an estimated 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the United States today. Thankfully, advancements in HIV treatment and prevention in recent years have made it possible for people with the virus to enjoy a higher quality of life and a longer lifespan than ever before.
While people living with HIV today can typically lead a normal life, similar to the one they had before contracting HIV, there are some important additional steps to take to stay healthy and avoid transmitting the virus to others. These steps include taking an active role in your health care, attending regular medical checkup appointments, and maintaining a strict medication schedule.
It is also essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle by maintaining a balanced diet and exercising regularly. Smoking, excessive drinking, and the use of recreational drugs should also be avoided as they can increase the chances of developing a life-threatening illness.
What are the treatment options for HIV?
You’ll be reassured to know that scientists have made significant strides in the past decade.
While HIV cannot be removed from the body (yet), these treatments can greatly extend the clinical latency stage and give you a better quality of life.
The combination of drugs used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART reduces the amount of HIV in your blood (also called the viral load). If your viral load is so low that it doesn’t show up in a standard lab test, it’s referred to as an undetectable viral load.
This is the goal of your treatment.
Not only does this keep you healthy, but you also have practically no risk of sexually transmitting HIV to your HIV-negative partners.
According to the World Health Organization, there have been huge reductions in HIV progression with antiretroviral therapy, particularly when started early.
Side Effects of Antiretroviral Therapy
Over the years, we have seen major improvements in HIV drugs, and serious side effects are not as common as they once were. However, there are still some side effects that can occur when under antiretroviral therapy.
Some of the most common side effects include appetite loss, lipodystrophy, diarrhea, fatigue, mood changes, depression and anxiety.
Be sure to let your health care provider know anytime you are experiencing side effects, even if you have been taking HIV drugs for a long time, as side effects can sometimes worsen the longer a drug is taken.
Staying on Treatment
It’s important to know that skipping doses or starting and stopping medication can lead to drug resistance. This can limit your future treatment options.
If you find it difficult to maintain your treatment, either due to side effects or timing, it’s vital that you speak to your healthcare provider to make changes right away.
Keeping your viral load low is the best defense against the progression of HIV.
How can I protect my loved ones from HIV?
If you’ve confirmed your partner is HIV-negative, you’ll be encouraged to learn that there are three effective ways you can make sure your sexual partner and future children stay HIV-free.
HIV Treatment as Prevention
As noted above, when you have an undetectable viral load, there’s effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to an HIV-negative partner through sex.
In other words, by taking good care of yourself, you’re also protecting your partner.
In addition, HIV.gov provides good news for pregnant HIV positive women. “If a woman living with HIV can take HIV medication as prescribed throughout pregnancy, labor, and delivery and if HIV medication is given to her baby for 4-6 weeks after delivery, the risk of transmission from pregnancy, labor, and delivery can be reduced to 1% or less.”
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) is another option. It is a daily regimen for taking Truvada, an HIV treatment medication that contains two antiretroviral medicines that prevent HIV’s ability to take hold in your body if you are exposed to the virus. HIV-negative partners can take a pill daily to reduce their risk of becoming infected. PrEP should be taken for 7-20 days to build protection. Daily PrEP reduces the risk by more than 90%. With a condom, the risk is even lower. PrEP users should see their primary health care provider regularly, about every 3 months, for monitoring and prescription refills.
Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)
There’s also Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) As the name implies, PEP can help protect you from HIV if you had anal or vaginal intercourse with someone who is, or may be infected with HIV. After potential exposure to HIV, your partner can take antiretroviral medicines (ART) within 72 hours to prevent becoming infected. However, PEP isn’t a substitute for other HIV prevention methods such as HIV treatment, PrEP, and condom use.
Where can I go for guidance?
The best place to start is HIV.gov and AIDSinfo from the National Institutes on Health. These websites provide easy-to-understand information about HIV treatment and clinical trials as well as advocacy and resources for how to live well with HIV.
Competent, Compassionate HIV Treatment in Upper Manhattan
If you live in New York City, the ColumbiaDoctor Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Group welcomes you. We offer expertise in primary care, mental health, and specialty care services for individuals living with HIV.
For lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) patients, we provide LGBT specialty services at our Washington Heights and Midtown locations. Since this community is disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, our practice provides an inclusive, safe environment for patients to learn about their options for treatment and get culturally-appropriate care.
Hopefully, this article has given you some clarity about living with your HIV-positive status. But more importantly, we hope it’s given you peace of mind that a long, healthy life is possible.
If you’re seeking a whole-person approach to your HIV treatment, we encourage you to consider our Nurse Practitioner Group practice. You can call 212-326-5705 or make an appointment directly through the website.