Testing positive for HIV often leaves a person overwhelmed with emotions and full of questions, concerns and fear. In a matter of seconds, your life changes and your vision is filled with horrific what-if scenarios, like a scene from a bad movie montage. Your mind races, then stops completely, working in frantic spurts as it tries to grasp onto the bits of information identifying what it is like to be HIV positive in 2016.
The first thing that is important to remember that HIV is a manageable disease that can be treated with medicine to help people live longer, healthier lives. With proper treatment, being HIV positive is as manageable as having a chronic condition like diabetes or asthma. Sure, you might need to exercise caution with some of your regular activities. And unless you had other health conditions prior to diagnosis, you’ll likely see a physician more than you did before, but all-in-all, with proper treatment and medication, you should be able to maintain the same quality of life that you had before.
The first step after testing positive is to see a health care provider, even if you don’t feel sick. Prompt medical care and treatment as soon as possible is the best way to stay healthy. Find a doctor who is highly knowledgeable about HIV. There are many HIV specialists who know exactly how to treat you, and that includes how to ease your concerns.
I found a doctor, now what?
During your first appointment, your doctor will do your initial lab work. This is called an HIV Baseline Evaluation. An HIV Baseline Evaluation includes all the information collected during a person’s initial visits with a health care provider. The HIV Baseline Evaluation includes a review of the person’s health and medical history, a physical exam, and lab tests.
The purpose of an HIV Baseline Evaluation is to:
- Determine how far a person’s HIV infection has progressed.
- Determine if treatment with meds can prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS.
- Evaluate the person’s readiness to start lifelong treatment
- Collect information to decide what medicine to start.
During an HIV Baseline Evaluation, the health care provider explains the benefits and risks of HIV treatment and discusses ways to reduce the risk of passing HIV to others.
During your HIV Baseline Evaluation, you will be tested to see what your CD4 count and viral load is. Your CD4 count is the amount of white blood cells you have in your body and your viral load is the amount of copies of the HIV virus that are in your system. Your doctor will also determine whether the virus you have is resistant to any medications, which is unlikely, as well as test for any other STDs and STIs.
I know this sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. No matter what your CD4 count may be, most people can bring it up with a simple one-pill regimen. The same medication will also reduce your viral load to an undetectable level, making it highly improbable for you to transmit the virus to someone else. Most likely, this will be the extent of managing your virus, along with regular checkups with your doctor to make sure that your body is healthy and that your medication is still working.
If drugs were a factor in your transmission (there’s a link between crystal meth use and HIV transmission, for example), your doctor might recommend rehab. You may tire more easily, be more prone to infections and have medical side effects that you didn’t have before, but hands down, the biggest change in your daily routine will be taking medication. As with any medication, the key to staying healthy and keeping an undetectable viral load is to never miss a dose.
What about my partner?
Today, there are multiple ways to have safe sex and, believe it or not, there is even a medication called PrEP that your partner can take to prevent them from getting the disease. Staying compliant with your meds and maintaining an undetectable viral load is the best way to ensure that you never transmit the virus. And If your partner takes PrEP and you take your meds, along with using condoms, the risk of transmission is significantly reduced, almost to zero.
How do I tell my family and friends?
First of all, you don’t have to tell anyone except your sexual partners. But talking about your status may be the best way for you to feel like yourself again. Believe it or not, there are probably many people around you who are either HIV-positive or have been affected by HIV in some way. The first time you tell someone may be scary, but it will get easier every time. The first step is to just say the three little letters out loud. H-I-V. Start there.
What does it mean to manage my virus?
For most people who are diagnosed today, managing your virus simply means being compliant with a one-pill-a-day regimen. Once you find a doctor, start medication and achieve an undetectable viral load, you will just need to have your lab work done every few months to make sure that everything is alright.
I am afraid of dying.
OK, so here’s the deal. A person newly diagnosed in 2016 has roughly the same life expectancy of a person who is HIV-negative. However, your virus does make you more susceptible to certain health risks. Some of those risks include cardiovascular disease, kidney problems and bone density loss. But before you start to panic again, these issues can be prevented with the proper care. Being knowledgeable about what to look out for is the best way to ensure a long and healthy life.
Am I going to get AIDS?
The term AIDS does seem scarier than HIV, right? But the truth is, many people who are living with HIV will never be diagnosed with AIDS. HIV is a virus. AIDS is just a diagnosis that a person receives once the virus reaches a certain point. When your CD4 count dips below 200 and your immune system is compromised enough that common illnesses can become life threatening, it’s called AIDS. As long as you stay on your medication and keep a healthy body and mind, you can keep your CD4 count in the healthy zone and far away from the level of AIDS. And if your CD4 count is already in the danger zone, the correct medication can bring you back up to healthy levels.
Your diagnosis is not the end of anything, but it may be the beginning of living a more informed and health-conscious life.
How can I find more resources for a person who has just tested HIV positive?