HIV currently affects around 1.1. million people in the United States. Generally, these people can lead a similar life to the one they had before they contracted HIV.
However, they will need to take HIV medications and go for checkups regularly.
People with HIV also need to take additional steps to stay healthy and to avoid transmitting the virus to others.
In this article, we describe some of the challenges that people living with HIV may face, as well as some of the things they may have to consider.
Antiretroviral therapy can help a person with HIV stay healthy.
Taking medication and attending checkup appointments are vital components of living with HIV.
Treatment for HIV is most successful when people take an active role in their own care.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advise that everyone with HIV undergo antiretroviral therapy. This course of treatment helps such people stay in good health and prevents transmission of the virus to others.
To keep HIV under control, people will need to take their medicines every day, exactly as their doctor recommends. They will also need to attend regular appointments to monitor the treatment and its effectiveness.
This means that people must track their medication use, medical appointments, symptoms, and more. Using a tracking chart can be helpful.
Being aware of opportunistic infections and cancers
People with HIV who do not seek the appropriate treatment have a higher risk of developing several opportunistic infections (OIs) and cancers.
Antiretroviral medications and vaccinations provide the best chance of avoiding complications, but people with HIV should monitor their health closely and beware of signs and symptoms of OIs and cancers.
It is important that people with HIV discuss the ways to reduce OI risk with their healthcare provider. Those who develop OIs can take antibiotics, antifungal medications, and other treatments.
Leading a healthful lifestyle
Eating a healthful diet and taking regular exercise is important for everyone, but it is especially so for people with HIV. These actions keep the immune system strong and able to fight infection.
Basic dietary principles include:
- eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- choosing lean sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, legumes, or tofu
- consuming healthful fats, such as those from nuts, avocado, or olive oil
- limiting processed foods, or foods high in sugar or salt
People with HIV may sometimes experience problems that affect their ability to consume or digest certain foods. This may occur because HIV medications can lead to stomach issues or infections that affect the ability to swallow.
It might be helpful to work with a dietician or other healthcare professional to avoid nutrient deficiencies and excess weight loss or gain.
Getting regular exercise is also important. Exercise can boost immune function, stimulate the appetite, improve mental health, and prevent constipation.
Those with HIV can typically enjoy the same types of exercise as those without the virus, as long as their healthcare provider approves the activity.
Practicing food safety
People with stage 3 HIV, or AIDS, are more likely to develop OIs because they have lower immune function.
It is important to avoid sources of potential infections, including foods that germs are likely to infect.
Foodborne illnesses can be severe for people with HIV and may cause longer recovery periods, hospitalization, or even death.
The following tips can help prevent complications:
- Practice good food hygiene when preparing, storing, and eating foods.
- Avoid raw meat, seafood, and eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products.
- Never drink water directly from lakes or rivers, as it is untreated.
- When in a country with lower hygiene standards, only drink bottled water, avoid ice, and do not eat peeled fruits or vegetables.
Not smoking, taking drugs, or drinking alcohol
Not smoking and limiting alcohol will help improve the immune system.
Staying in the best possible health is important for people with HIV, as it can help prevent a range of complications.
To keep the immune system strong, these people should consider the following lifestyle choices:
- quitting smoking
- limiting or avoiding alcohol
- limiting or avoiding recreational drugs
Smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, some other cancers, and other lung problems, and people with HIV are at greater risk of complications. Research from 2017 suggests a high rate of tobacco use in people with HIV.
Other research indicates that alcohol use occurs frequently in people with HIV, and the authors link it to poor treatment response and more rapid viral progression. Drug use may have similar effects.
For support quitting smoking, speak to a healthcare professional or call the state quitline on 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669). A healthcare provider can also give advice and information on limiting or avoiding alcohol and drugs.
Talking to others about HIV
Having the support of other people can make it much easier to navigate certain challenges.
It can be beneficial to talk to a friend or family member. Other options include joining a support group or seeing a therapist.
It is not necessary for people to disclose the status of their condition to friends, employers, or colleagues. However, doing so can have practical and emotional advantages, especially in relation to taking time off work.
A person’s sexual partners should know about their HIV status. Disclosing this information gives the person with HIV legal protection and allows others to make their own decisions.
Some states require people with HIV to share their diagnosis with sexual or drug-using partners. The Center for HIV Law and Policy offers more information on disclosure and HIV-specific laws.
For more information on disclosing HIV status to other people, the charity Avert and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer some useful guidance.
Some local state departments may also inform sexual or drug partners of a person’s HIV status if necessary.
Dealing with stigma
Despite considerable advances in treatment, some people with HIV may still face stigma and discrimination. These prejudices often result from myths, fears, or a lack of education surrounding the condition.
However, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with HIV from discrimination. People who feel that they have been discriminated against because of their HIV diagnosis can file a complaint.
Managing stress and supporting mental health
Living with HIV can increase stress or lead to depression or anxiety. However, a person should aim to protect their mental health to feel good, avoid HIV-related complications, and ensure a longer life.
People who experience symptoms of depression and anxiety should speak to their healthcare provider or a mental health professional.
Depression and anxiety are highly treatable with medications and some lifestyle changes. To manage stress and mood disorders, people can engage in relaxation activities such as:
- alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, or aromatherapy
- art or music therapies
- deep-breathing techniques
- enjoyable hobbies
- meditation and mindfulness
- progressive muscle relaxation
Preventing HIV transmission
People with HIV should:
- use condoms correctly during all sexual activity
- not share needles or other drug-related equipment
- seek treatment for other sexually transmitted infections
People who are pregnant should take their medication as their doctor says they should throughout the pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding stages.
Getting enough sleep
Reading before bedtime can help a person establish a regular sleep pattern.
Adequate sleep is essential for physical and mental health, including for immune function.
Research estimates that up to 70 percent of people with HIV experience sleep problems. These may result from:
- depression or anxiety
- HIV medications
- HIV-related conditions and symptoms
- sleep apnea
- worries about finances, relationships, or stigma
Aim to sleep for 7–9 hours each night. To achieve this:
- go to bed and get up at the same time each day, including on the weekend
- establish a bedtime routine that may include taking a warm bath, reading, or drinking an herbal tea
People can speak to a healthcare provider about ongoing or severe sleep issues. Solutions may include changing to another medication, taking sleeping pills, seeing a therapist, or making lifestyle changes.
Receiving a diagnosis of HIV can be overwhelming. Realistically, everyone’s life is different and how they deal with their diagnosis will be unique.
With appropriate treatment and self-care, people with HIV can live long, happy, and fulfilling lives. Many aspects of living with HIV are similar to living without HIV.
For example, regardless of HIV status, people should strive to eat a healthful diet, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, and limit or avoid using alcohol and drugs. Managing stress and getting enough sleep are also essential for well-being.
People with HIV need to consider additional factors in their daily lives, including remembering to take their medication, seeing their healthcare provider regularly, and monitoring their health closely for signs of OIs.
They should also take steps to avoid transmitting the virus, and they should find ways to tell their sexual partners and drug partners about their diagnosis.
Although living with HIV can be difficult, there are a lot of support systems available, including from healthcare professionals, support groups, family, friends, and the legal profession.