TOP 10 QUESTIONS ABOUT LIVING WITH HIV
By: Dr. Joel Gallant, MD, MPH
1. What’s my prognosis?
Your prognosis is excellent, especially if you’re diagnosed early, get started on medications right away, and take your medication daily. Under those circumstances, your life expectancy can be the same as it would have been without HIV. Even people who are diagnosed or treated after their immune system has been weakened can still do very well on treatment. The keys to a long and healthy life with HIV are getting good medical care and adhering to therapy.
2. How does HIV make you sick?
Untreated HIV infection causes a steady decline in CD4 cells, a type of white blood cell that protects you against certain infections and cancers. As the CD4 count falls, your risk of these complications increases. “Opportunistic infections” (OIs) are infections that don’t happen to people with healthy immune systems, but can occur in people with low CD4 counts (usually less than 200 cells/mm 3). And a weakened immune system (“immunosuppression”) isn’t the only problem caused by HIV. Even at high CD4 counts, HIV infection causes chronic inflammation and activation of the immune system, which may increase the risk of some long-term complications such as heart attack, dementia, osteoporosis, and cancers. Fortunately, HIV treatment restores CD4 cells and reduces inflammation and immune activation, preventing most complications.
3. What are the most important lab tests to follow?
The CD4 count measures the health of your immune system. It predicts your risk of complications and determines the urgency of treatment. A count above 500 cells/mm 3 is normal. If your count is below 200 cells/mm 3, you’re at risk of developing OIs and are considered to have AIDS.
The viral load measures the amount of virus in the blood. It’s the best measure of how well treatment is working. Effective treatment should reduce the viral load to undetectable levels (usually less than 20 copies/mL) within a few months, and that’s where it should stay.
There are many other recommended lab tests that assess your general health and monitor the effects of treatment. Most people with HIV get lab work every 3-6 months.
4. How do I prevent OIs and cancers?
The best way to prevent these complications is to keep your CD4 count high and your viral load undetectable on treatment. But if you’ve just been diagnosed and your CD4 count is low, your doctor may put you on OI “prophylaxis”: medications to prevent common OIs. Prophylaxis is usually temporary; it can be stopped after you’ve responded to treatment.
There are no medications to prevent cancer, but it’s important to get the recommended screening tests. For colon cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer, the recommendations are the same as for HIV-negative people. Cervical and anal cancer, caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), can be more aggressive in people with HIV, and the screening recommendations (using cervical and anal Pap smears) are different. People should get the HPV vaccine to prevent infection with this cancer-causing virus.
5. How do I avoiding infecting someone else?
Maintaining an undetectable viral load on treatment is the best form of prevention. People with undetectable viral loads don’t transmit HIV infection. Of course you don’t get your viral load measured every day, so you may want to take additional precautions, especially if you’re recently started treatment or if your viral load hasn’t been suppressed for very long. Wearing condoms provides added protection, especially for the highest risk activities (anal or vaginal intercourse with the HIV-positive partner “on top”). HIV-negative partners can also choose to take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), taking a medication called Truvada daily to prevent infection.
6. What else should I be doing to protect my health?
Since you’re unlikely to die of AIDS, your goal should be to live a long, healthy life and then die of old age. For the most part, that means the same thing for you as it would for anyone else: exercise regularly, don’t smoke, eat a healthy diet, avoid drug use and excessive alcohol consumption, and get the recommended vaccinations and screening tests. There are a few recommendations that are different for people with HIV, but for the most part, a healthy lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle. There are no special diets you need to follow if you have HIV, and unless your CD4 count is low, there are no foods that having HIV requires you to avoid. In most communities, drinking tap water is fine. If you eat a healthy diet, you don’t need to take vitamins or supplements; the one exception might be vitamin D, a vitamin that most people seem to be deficient in these days. Since people with HIV are at greater risk of osteoporosis, maintaining normal vitamin D levels is probably a good idea. Ask your doctor before taking other vitamins and supplements, as some can interact with HIV medications
7. Are my medications toxic?
Many of the earlier HIV medications were difficult, sometimes causing side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, anemia, fatigue and toxicities (damage to the body) like liver problems, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and/or body shape changes. Fortunately, that’s not the case with the medications we use today, which is one of the reasons why we now recommend treatment for everyone. If they occur at all, side effects are usually mild and temporary. There are few long-term toxicities, and they’re no longer inevitable.
8. Will my virus become resistant to my medications?
Not if you take them. Resistance occurs when the virus mutates in a way that allows it to replicate (reproduce) despite the presence of drugs. The virus can’t mutate unless it’s replicating, and it can’t do that if it’s constantly suppressed by therapy. If you stop taking your medications or miss multiple doses, the virus can replicate. If there is still some drug in your blood, virus with mutations that make it resistant to those drugs can be selected and become the predominant strain. When that happens, you’ll need a resistance test to find out which drugs will still be effective, and then you’ll need to change your regimen.
It’s possible to be infected by a virus that’s already resistant to drugs, which is why a baseline resistance test is now recommended for everyone at the time of diagnosis. When transmitted resistance is present, it’s important to customize your drug regimen based on the test results, ensuring that you’ll be on a fully active drug combination.
9. Can I still have children?
Yes, you can. If you’re a woman with HIV, taking medications during pregnancy will prevent transmission to the baby, as long as your viral load is undetectable at the time of delivery. If you’re a man, your HIV infection doesn’t directly affect the infant, who can only be infected by the mother. Your priority should be not infecting your partner if she’s HIV-negative. It’s critical that you have an undetectable viral load on treatment before you try to conceive. Some women with HIV-positive partners may also choose to take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for added protection.
10. When will there be a cure?
Curing HIV will be a challenge. Until very recently, there was no cure for any viral disease. They either ran their course and resolved on their own (the common cold), were preventable by vaccination (measles), or stayed with you for life (herpes). Now that we can cure hepatitis C, that rule has been broken, but HIV is far more complicated because of “latency”: the DNA of the virus gets inserted into human DNA in cells that live for a very long time. As a result, cure is not a matter of killing virus or of stopping replication, which we can do now, but of eliminating all viral DNA from latently infected cells. Scientists are looking at ways to do that by “activating” (waking up) the latent cells, by genetically modifying those cells so they can’t be infected, or by removing the inserted viral DNA from the human DNA. We will probably achieve a cure someday, but I don’t think it’s just around the corner.