The last 40 years have seen dramatic improvements in HIV treatments and people’s understanding of the condition. Many people with HIV have lives that are not so different from those of people without the virus.
People who receive the most up-to-date treatments can usually enjoy full social and professional lives, as long as they follow their treatment plans. Also, people who receive an early diagnosis and effective treatment can expect to live nearly as long as people who do not have the virus.
As well as taking medication, a person with HIV needs to attend regular medical checks. Maintaining a healthful lifestyle and seeking treatment for any other medical issues right away can help an individual with the condition stay healthy.
There are some additional considerations, for example, during pregnancy.
In this article, we describe some challenges that people who are living with HIV face, as well as some tips and resources that provide support.
Following a treatment plan and attending medical appointments are key aspects of living with HIV.
The development of antiretroviral medications has allowed many people to live with HIV and experience minimal adverse health effects.
Effective treatment can reduce the level of the virus in the body — the body’s viral load. When the viral load is so low that tests cannot detect it, the person can no longer pass on HIV, as long as they continue to take their medication.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommend that everyone with HIV take antiretroviral therapy — a combination of drugs that can help support health and prevent transmission of the virus.
To manage HIV, a person needs to take their medication every day, exactly as their doctor instructs. They also need to attend regular appointments and track any symptoms.
Here, learn about the different drugs that can treat HIV.
If a person with HIV does not receive treatment, their immune system may weaken, and this increases their risk of developing opportunistic infections.
In other words, having uncontrolled HIV can make it easier for other infections to develop and harder for the body to combat them. Antiretroviral medications and vaccinations can help prevent this from happening.
However, it is still crucial for people with HIV to monitor their health closely and be able to recognize early signs of infection. A healthcare professional can help explain the risks and what to look out for, as well as answer any questions.
If a person with HIV suspects that they have an infection, they should seek treatment — which may involve antibiotics or antifungal medications — right away.
A healthful diet and regular exercise are important for everyone — they help boost the immune system and contribute to overall well-being.
A person should eat:
- plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- lean sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, or legumes
- fats that are healthful, such as those from nuts, olive oil, or avocados
- few, if any, foods that are processed or high in sugar or salt
People with HIV can experience problems that affect the ability to consume or digest certain foods. These issues may be side effects of medications or symptoms of infections or other complications.
People may need to take their HIV medication with food. A healthcare provider can give detailed advice about how to take each drug.
Meanwhile, a dietician or another healthcare professional can help develop a plan to avoid nutrient deficiencies and unwanted weight loss or gain.
People with HIV can typically enjoy the same types of exercise as those without the virus. However, before trying out a new activity, it is a good idea to consult a healthcare provider.
Mouth sores are a common symptom of HIV, and they can make it hard to eat or swallow. Learn about treatment, prevention, and more here.
The symptoms of foodborne illnesses, sometimes collectively called “food poisoning,” can be more severe in people with uncontrolled HIV, and recovery can take longer. A person may need to spend time in the hospital, and in some cases, a foodborne illness becomes life threatening.
The following tips can help prevent complications:
- Practice good food hygiene when preparing, storing, and eating meals.
- Avoid raw or undercooked meat, seafood, and eggs.
- Avoid unpasteurized dairy products.
- Never drink untreated water, for example, from lakes or rivers.
- When traveling outside of the U.S., drink bottled water, avoid ice, and avoid unpeeled fruits and raw vegetables.
Maintaining good overall health is important for people with HIV, as it can help prevent a range of complications.
The following lifestyle choices can help keep the immune system strong:
- quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
- limiting or avoiding alcohol intake
- avoiding recreational drug use
There is also evidence that alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of some HIV medications and promote more rapid viral progression.
Recreational drug use may have similar effects, as these drugs can interfere with the actions of prescription medications, according to researchers. Using recreational drugs can also make a person less likely to follow their treatment plan.
For help quitting smoking, speak to a healthcare professional or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669). A healthcare provider can also give advice and information about avoiding alcohol and other drugs.
Having support can make it easier to manage the challenges of living with HIV.
It may help to confide in:
- a trusted friend, partner, or family member
- a counselor
- a support group for people with HIV
Telling other people about a diagnosis can feel daunting. A healthcare professional or support group can help a person choose a friend or family member to confide in and also help the person prepare for the conversation.
It is not necessary to tell friends, employers, or colleagues about a diagnosis of HIV. However, sharing this information may have practical advantages, for example, if a person needs to take time off work.
A person with HIV can have an active sex life. However, it is still important to take some precautions.
HIV.gov recommend sharing the diagnosis with sexual partners. Telling a partner about an HIV diagnosis can help keep both people healthy.
A person with HIV cannot pass on the virus if their viral load is undetectable and they continue to take their medication. Undetectable means intransmissible.
In other words: When a viral load is undetectable, the person still has HIV, but levels of it in their body are so low that they cannot transmit the virus to another person. When a person follows their treatment plan, there is an excellent chance of reducing their viral load to this point.
For people who do not have HIV but who have sexual partners with the condition, it may be a good idea to ask a healthcare provider about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). This type of drug can dramatically reduce the risk of contracting HIV.
The CDC note that if a person has another sexually transmitted infection (STI), it increases their risk of contracting HIV. One reason is that if the STI causes broken skin or sores, this makes it easier for HIV to enter the body.
Some states require people with HIV to share their status with sexual partners and anyone with whom they may share needles. It is important for people to check the laws in states that they live in or visit.
The Center for HIV Law and Policy provide more information about the legal rights and responsibilities of people who live with HIV.
Some people with HIV face stigma and discrimination, despite advances in treatment, reductions in risk, and increased awareness. Prejudices often stem from myths, fears, a lack of education about HIV, and institutional attitudes and laws.
People with HIV have the same rights to medical treatment and services as other people.
The CDC list a number of support services for people who are experiencing stigma or discrimination related to HIV.
The Americans with Disabilities Act serves to protect people with HIV from discrimination. Anyone who experiences this type of discrimination can file a complaint with the Department of Justice here.
Anyone who has concerns about their mental or emotional health should let a healthcare professional know. Some available treatments can improve a person’s quality of life and help them cope with other pressures.
Some nonmedical ways of managing stress and mood disorders include:
- relaxation activities, mindfulness, and meditation
- alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, massage, and aromatherapy
- art or music therapies
- deep breathing techniques
- exercise, including yoga
- getting enough sleep
- eating healthfully
The author of a 2013 study reports that up to 70% of people with HIV experience sleep problems. The reasons are unclear, but anxiety likely plays a role.
A lack of sleep can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system and have other mental and physical health consequences. Anyone with HIV who has sleep problems should inform their healthcare provider, who may recommend counseling or medication.
Learning more about HIV can also help a person feel more in control of their situation.
A woman with HIV can become pregnant and deliver a healthy baby. However, it is important to take precautions to avoid passing on the virus to the baby.
These measures include:
- staying in close contact with the doctor or midwife
- taking HIV treatments exactly as prescribed
- having a cesarean delivery, in most cases
- the doctor giving special medication that combats HIV to the newborn
- refraining from breastfeeding
In 99% of cases, when the doctor and mother follow the guidelines above, the baby does not have HIV, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
In the past, the outlook for HIV was poor. However, due to advances in treatment, nearly 50% of people living with HIV in the U.S. are aged 50 or older.
As they age, many people with HIV experience chronic health conditions — such as lung disease, certain cancers, or cardiovascular disease. These conditions may not be related to the virus, though having HIV may have increased the person’s susceptibility.
Also, some people with HIV develop associated neurocognitive disorders, which can affect the ability to focus, move, remember things, and use language.
Research into the long-term impact of HIV and its treatment is ongoing. As scientists discover more about the virus, there is hope that the outlook will continue to improve.
Find out more about the life expectancy of people with HIV in this article.
When a person receives a diagnosis of HIV, they may feel overwhelmed. Having a chronic illness will change a person’s life to some extent, but HIV treatments can significantly reduce the impact of the virus on the quality of life.
Many people with HIV now have lives that are not so different from those of people without the virus.
While each individual’s experience is different, the following can often help improve life with HIV:
- working with a healthcare provider to establish the best possible treatment plan
- taking care of mental and physical well-being by making healthful lifestyle choices
- seeking early treatment for issues such as infections and stress
- establishing a support network — in person, online, or both
- learning about the social, legal, and medical resources available
If I have a new HIV diagnosis, what happens about my health insurance?
A person should not lose their health insurance if they get HIV. The doctor can refer a person to a program that pays for HIV medication if their insurance does not cover it or they have no insurance.
Cameron White, M.D., MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.