HIV is a complicated virus. It mutates (changes) rapidly and is often able to fend off immune system responses. Only a small number of people who have HIV develop broadly neutralizing antibodies, the kind of antibodies that can respond to a range of HIV strains.
To develop AIDS, a person has to have contracted HIV. But having HIV doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will develop AIDS.
HIV progresses through three stages:
- stage 1: acute stage, the first few weeks after transmission
- stage 2: clinical latency, or chronic stage
- stage 3: AIDS
As HIV lowers the CD4 cell count, the immune system weakens. A typical adult’s CD4 count is 500 to 1,500 per cubic millimeter. A person with a count below 200 is considered to have AIDS.
How quickly a case of HIV progresses through the chronic stage varies significantly from person to person. Without treatment, it can last up to a decade before advancing to AIDS. With treatment, it can last indefinitely.
There’s currently no cure for HIV, but it can be managed. People with HIV often have a near-normal lifespan with early treatment with antiretroviral therapy. Along those same lines, there’s technically no cure for AIDS currently. However, treatment can increase a person’s CD4 count to the point where they’re considered to no longer have AIDS. (This point is a count of 200 or higher.) Also, treatment can typically help manage opportunistic infections.
HIV and AIDS are related, but they’re not the same thing.
The most important thing is to start antiretroviral treatment as soon as possible. By taking medications exactly as prescribed, people living with HIV can keep their viral load low and their immune system strong. It’s also important to follow up with a healthcare provider regularly.
So, if you are a person living with HIV, you can live a long and productive life, make your health a top priority. Here are some tips to help you live your best life yet:
- Eat a well-balanced diet
- Exercise regularly
- Get plenty of rest
- Spend time with friends and family
- Take your antiretroviral drugs religiously
- Do fun stuff from time to time
- Go for a checkup from time to time
- Avoid tobacco and other drugs
- Report any new symptoms to your healthcare provider right away
- Focus on your mental health. You could consider seeing a licensed therapist who is experienced in treating people with HIV.
Use safer sex practices. Talk to their sexual partner(s). Get tested for other STIs. And use condoms and other barrier methods every time they have vaginal or anal sex.
Talk to their healthcare provider about PrEP and PEP. When used consistently by a person without HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) can lower the chances of transmission. PrEP is most often recommended for people without HIV in relationships with people with HIV, but it can be used in other situations as well.
Get support. Join a HIV support group, either in person or online, so you can meet with others who face the same concerns as you.
Many things affect life expectancy for a person with HIV. Among them are:
- CD4 cell count
- viral load
- serious HIV-related illnesses, including hepatitis
- misusing drugs
- access, adherence, and response to treatment
- other health conditions
Currently, there are no vaccines to prevent or treat HIV. Research and testing on experimental vaccines are ongoing, but none are close to being approved for general use. While there’s still no vaccine to prevent HIV, people with HIV can benefit from other vaccines to prevent HIV-related illnesses.
- pneumonia: for all children younger than 2 and all adults 65 and older
- influenza: for all people over 6 months old annually with rare exceptions
- hepatitis A and B: ask your doctor if you should get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, especially if you are in a higher risk group.
- meningitis: the meningococcal conjugate vaccination is for all preteens and teens at 11 to 12 years old with a booster dose at 16, or anyone at risk. The serogroup B meningococcal vaccination is recommended for anyone 10 years or older with increased risk.
- shingles: for those ages 50 or older.
Having HIV is not a death sentence. It is a call to responsible living for yourself and others around you.