Today, living healthy with HIV is a primary goal for HIV-positive individuals. Thanks to advancements in HIV treatment, living a long and healthy life is not only possible, it can be expected in most cases. Follow these steps to begin treatment, achieve viral suppression, and prevent transmission of HIV to others.
Once you are diagnosed with HIV, find a doctor and seek treatment immediately, even if you feel fine. Due to advances in treatment, many HIV+ individuals are living long and fulfilling lives. Receiving treatment will also significantly reduce the chances you will transmit HIV to others. Without treatment, HIV can damage your immune system and lead to AIDS.
Notify your partner or partners
Once you are diagnosed with HIV, you and your doctor can discuss the best way to notify your sexual partner or partners. Any sexual partners and those with whom you have shared needles must be informed that you are HIV+ and encouraged to be tested for HIV. Most health departments and HIV clinics have anonymous partner notification systems if you wish to use them — your partners are told that they have been exposed but are not told who reported their names or when the reported exposure occurred. If you have not already, begin using safe sex strategies, such as using condoms.
By enrolling in Illinois HIV Care Connect, you can receive confidential medical case management services at no charge. In addition, you may qualify for a range of health care and other services that can help you achieve optimal health and self-sufficiency.
Your HIV Care Connect medical case manager and your doctor can help you work through many of the challenges of living with HIV, including what you must do to achieve viral suppression and the impact HIV may have on your mental health. They also can point you to additional services you may need. For example, various programs such as the Illinois AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP Medication Assistance), Ryan White Part B, Continuation of Health Insurance Coverage (CHIC Premium Assistance) Program and Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS (HOPWA) provide assistance for people living with HIV.
You may choose to continue to see your current doctor, or your Illinois HIV Care Connect medical case manager can help you find a doctor if you need help finding one. The doctor you choose should take your medical history, provide a physical exam and conduct appropriate tests including a CD4 count, viral load test and drug resistance test. The results will provide a baseline measurement for future tests.
It’s important for you to learn as much as possible about your condition and treatment options – don’t hesitate to ask any questions that you have. Women should have a pregnancy test and a gynecologic examination with Pap test.
For more information on the importance of staying in care, see Illinois HIV Care Connect’s Stay In Care website pages.
If you are diagnosed with HIV, you should begin taking anti-HIV medications as soon as possible.
Research has clearly proven that taking anti-HIV medications improves the health of people living with HIV and significantly reduces HIV-related deaths. Results from the Strategic Timing of Antiretroviral Treatment (START) study released in 2015 demonstrated significant health benefits for people living with HIV if they start taking anti-HIV medications sooner, rather than later.
This study’s results support treating people living with HIV when the CD4+ T-cell count—a key measure of immune system health—is higher, instead of waiting until the CD4+ count drops to lower levels. START also showed that anti-HIV medications reduced the risk of HIV transmission to uninfected sexual partners.
Once you begin taking the anti-HIV medications that you and your doctor choose, you will continue to take anti-HIV medications for the rest of your life. Although newer anti-HIV medications are easier to take, starting treatment usually means a significant adjustment in your lifestyle. Some anti-HIV medications need to be taken several times a day at specific times and may require a change in the foods you eat, when you eat meals, and when you take other medications.
In addition to their desired effects, anti-HIV medications may have side effects, some of which can be serious. If the HIV virus is not suppressed completely, drug resistance can develop and may limit your future treatment options.
Carefully following your treatment regimen–known as adherence–helps you to prevent drug resistance. When you skip doses, you may develop HIV strains resistant to drugs you are taking now or drugs you may need in the future. Adherence to your treatment regimen gives you the best chance for long-term success in managing your condition.
Over time, your doctor will conduct periodic CD4 count, viral load and drug resistance tests, as well as monitor your general health and physical exam results. Your doctor will recommend either continuing or changing your treatment according to how well you respond to it.
For pregnant or breast-feeding women, or those planning to become pregnant
Research also has demonstrated that pregnant women living with HIV can improve their health and greatly lower the chances they will pass HIV to their babies by taking anti-HIV medications before, during, or after birth. If a woman takes anti-HIV medications as prescribed throughout pregnancy, labor and delivery and while breastfeeding, the risk of transmitting HIV to the baby can be 1 percent or less.
Anti-HIV medications are most effective for preventing HIV transmission to babies when women begin this drug therapy before they become pregnant or as early as possible during pregnancy. Keep in mind, however, there are still great benefits for women who start taking these medications during labor or shortly after the baby is born.
Once your doctor prescribes anti-HIV medications, you must take the medications exactly as directed. If you skip even one dose, you give HIV the chance to reproduce more rapidly, increasing the chances of AIDS-related conditions. The goal of treatment is to achieve viral suppression, which means the HIV is not reproducing and the viral load is at an undetectable level.
Taking anti-HIV medications regularly reduces chances of transmitting HIV to others
By taking your anti-HIV medications regularly, you will significantly reduce your chances of transmitting HIV to others. HPTN 052 and the PARTNER study, two studies with results made public in 2016, found that people living with HIV who had achieved viral suppression transmitted zero infections to their partners. Both heterosexual and gay couples participated in the study. Viral suppression means having a low amount of HIV in the blood.
Learn more about viral suppression at Illinois HIV Care Connect’s viral suppression website pages.
Talk to your doctor about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a prevention strategy that involves providing anti-HIV medications to your HIV-negative partner to protect him or her from HIV infection. Medical studies have shown that PrEP prevents HIV very effectively if used as prescribed. PrEP is much less effective when it is not taken consistently.
Daily PrEP use can lower the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90 percent and from injection drug use by more than 70 percent. PrEP combined with condoms and other HIV prevention strategies can reduce risk even more.
PrEP also may be recommended by doctors for individuals at high risk for HIV infection, such as individuals who have:
- An ongoing sexual relationship with an HIV-positive partner
- More than one sexual partner, particularly individuals who have not tested HIV-negative
- Had anal sex with a man without using a condom in the past six months
- Been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the past six months
- Injected drugs in the past six months
- Shared needles or works or been in drug treatment in the past six months
- Heterosexual sex without using condoms with partners of unknown HIV status
Learn more about PrEP and other treatment as prevention strategies at Illinois HIV Care Connect’s treatment as prevention website pages.
(These words are bolded in the main text)
AIDS – The most serious stage of HIV infection. AIDS results from the destruction of the infected person’s immune system.
Antiretroviral therapy – Medications that interfere with the replication, or reproduction, of retroviruses and slow the progression of disease. HIV is a retrovirus. You and your doctor will determine the best time to start treatment with these medications, depending on your overall health, the amount of virus in your blood, and how well your immune system is working.
Baseline – An initial measurement made before starting therapy and used as a reference point to monitor the HIV infection.
CD4 count – The number of CD4 cells in a blood sample. CD4 cells are white blood cells that fight infection. HIV destroys CD4 cells, weakening the body’s immune system.
Drug resistance test – A test that determines if an HIV strain is resistant to any anti-HIV medications.
Immune system – The body’s defense system. The immune system’s cells fight off infection and other diseases. If your immune system does not work well, you are at risk for serious and life-threatening infections and diseases. HIV attacks and destroys the disease-fighting cells of the immune system, leaving the body with a weakened defense.
Pap test – A method to examine cells for early signs of uterine cancer.
Viral load test – A test that measures the amount of HIV in a blood sample and shows how well the immune system is controlling the virus.