The moments after learning you’re HIV-positive can seem like a free fall. In a matter of seconds, you are sent into a tailspin of what-if scenarios, and your vision fills with horrific images from a bad movie montage. Your mind races, then stalls completely, working in frantic fits and spurts and grasping onto bits of information you can remember about what it is to be HIV-positive today.
The nurse tells you that you are going to be just fine and that HIV is now a manageable disease. The doctor tells you that if you take care of yourself, you can expect to live just as long as you would have if HIV-negative.
Still, there is an inescapable fear of the unknown. What does it mean to live with HIV? What is going to have to change in your life, and more importantly, what can you expect to remain the same? You aren’t alone. There are so many who have gone through the exact same thing and have already asked all these burning questions. Below are some quick answers.
What do I do now?
The first thing to do is to stop panicking. You are the same person who walked into the clinic before receiving your test results. It may seem like everything has changed, but it hasn’t. Still, there are some things you can do to ease your mind and find your way back to being OK. Find a doctor who is highly knowledgeable about HIV and is the right fit for you. You might be surprised about how uneducated your average family doctor is about HIV and how to treat it. The last thing you need is to be treated by a doctor who has just as many questions as you have. There are many HIV specialists who know exactly how to treat you, and that includes how to ease your concerns. These doctors can also act as your primary physician, who will keep your HIV diagnosis in mind when minor health issues arise along the way.
I found a doctor. Now what?
During your first appointment, your doctor will do your initial lab work. This is to see what your CD4 count and viral load is. Your CD4 count is the number of disease-fighting white blood cells you have in your body, and your viral load is the number of copies of HIV that are in your system. Your doctor will also determine whether the virus you have is resistant to any medications, which is unlikely. This sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. No matter what your CD4 count may be, most people can bring their count up by simply taking a single-pill regimen. The same medication can also help reduce your viral load to an undetectable level, which would make it highly unlikely for you to transmit the virus to someone else. Most likely, this will be the extent of managing your virus, along with regular checkups with your doctor to make sure that your body is healthy and that your medication is working. The key to staying healthy and keeping an undetectable viral load is to never miss a dose — just as you should with medication for any other ailment.
Can I only have sex with other people who are also HIV-positive?
Of course not! Today, there are multiple ways to have safe sex, and believe it or not, most of us are knowledgeable enough to know that informed sex is the safest sex of all, regardless of status. Again, staying compliant with your meds and maintaining an undetectable viral load is one of the best ways to ensure that you never transmit the virus (this is called “treatment as prevention”). This method of prevention is for your protection just as much as it is for your partner.
How will I tell my friends and family?
First off, you don’t have to tell anyone except your future sexual partners. But talking about your status may be the best way for you to feel like yourself again. There are probably other people around you who are either HIV-positive or have been affected by HIV in one way or another. The first time you tell someone may be scary, but it gets easier every time. The first step is to just say the three little letters out loud. Start there. (Check our mental health editor’s guide — https://bit.ly/1E4JnJs
— for 10 steps to make the process easier.)
What does it mean to manage my virus?
For most people who are diagnosed today, managing your virus simply means being compliant with a one-pill-a-day regimen. Once you find a doctor, start medication, and achieve an undetectable viral load, you will just need to have your lab work done every four months or so to make sure that everything is all right.
Am I going to die?
Here’s the deal. A person diagnosed today has roughly the same life expectancy as a person who is HIV-negative. However, your virus does make you more susceptible to several other health problems that you need to be aware of. Some of these are cardiovascular disease, kidney problems, and bone density loss. But before you start to panic again, know that these can be prevented with the proper care. Being knowledgeable about what to look out for is the best way to ensure a long and healthy life.
Am I going to get AIDS?
The term AIDS does seem scarier than HIV, doesn’t it? The truth is, many people who are living with HIV will never be diagnosed with AIDS. HIV is a virus; AIDS is a diagnosis that a person receives once the virus reaches a certain point. When your CD4 count dips below 200 and your immune system is so damaged that common illnesses can be life-threatening, then your disease is classified as AIDS. As long as you stay on your medication and keep a healthy body and mind, you can keep your CD4 count in the healthy zone and far away from the level of AIDS. And if your CD4 count is already in the danger zone, the correct medication can bring you back up to healthy levels.