The human immunodeficiency virus is a condition affecting an estimated 89,000 people living in the UK. The virus is most common in men who have sex with men, and black African heterosexual men and women.
Unfortunately, it’s estimated that around 12% of HIV-positive people in the UK don’t know they are infected with the virus. This means that they could go on to develop AIDS, a very serious condition caused when the virus is allowed to progress through the body untreated.
Though a stigma still surrounds HIV, in this day and age it is relatively easy to keep the virus well-managed with the right lifestyle changes and medication. HIV typically only poses a serious problem when it goes untreated for a long period.
How is HIV diagnosed?
The first step towards managing HIV is getting a firm diagnosis. If you suspect that you may have contracted the virus, you should get tested as soon as possible.
80% of people infected experience something called seroconversion illness in the first few weeks after exposure. This is where the immune system tries to fight off the infection. It is characterised by a short flu-like sickness with fever, a sore throat and a body rash. Many other infections and conditions can cause these types of symptoms so they cannot be used to diagnose HIV alone.
HIV can be tested for with a blood or saliva sample, however a blood test is more accurate. The test may need to be repeated after one to three months to confirm the diagnosis. Once you have a firm diagnosis of HIV, you can begin to seek treatment and start managing your condition.
After a diagnosis is made, regular blood tests will be needed to monitor the progress of the virus. These blood tests count the number of CD4 cells in your body. CD4 cells are immune cells; the more you have, the healthier your immune system is, and the better equipped you are to fight infection. HIV attacks CD4 cells so counting the number you have is a good indicator of how far the virus has progressed.
A healthy CD4 count for an uninfected person ranges between 500 and 1200. When it drops to lower than 200, this is an indication that the virus has progressed into AIDS – this is essentially a more severe form of the disease where your immune system is more vulnerable.
Treatment for HIV
HIV is treated and managed with antiretroviral medicines, or ARVs. These prevent the virus from multiplying, allowing the immune system to recover from damage and start fighting off infection again. It is normal to be prescribed three or more types of ARV, in a type of treatment known as antiretroviral therapy (ART).
To continue fighting the virus effectively, you will have to take your antiretroviral treatment every single day for the rest of your life. Missing even a few doses can disrupt the efficacy of the treatment, as it can allow the virus to develop a resistance to the ARVs. Because of this risk, it’s a good idea to work out an easy daily routine for taking your medicines.
ARVs can interact negatively with certain medications. However, when you are prescribed your HIV treatment your doctor will inform you of any risks. Be careful about taking any over-the-counter medicines drugs without checking the ingredients.
As part of your treatment, you should keep in regular contact with your doctor and healthcare team, so that they can continue to review your condition.
It should be said that HIV treatment nowadays is very good, and most patients can lead healthy long lives where the HIV disease is kept well controlled.
General Health & Wellbeing
Keeping in good health is very important when you have HIV. This is because the healthier you are, the stronger your immune system. You are not required to have a special diet, but you should adhere to the recommended guidelines by eating:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Lean protein such as chicken, turkey and fish
- Pulses and beans
- Wholegrain starchy carbohydrates
- Low-fat dairy
You should avoid eating too much sugar and junk food, and drinking too much alcohol. Regular exercise and quitting smoking are also recommended.
Sex & Relationships
If you are in a relationship with someone who is HIV-positive, or vice versa, you can still have sex safely. Someone who is HIV-positive and receiving the proper ARV treatment will have a low “viral load”, which means that they are far less likely to pass on the virus through sex - however, you should still use condoms.
If you think you or partner are particularly at risk of contracting HIV, you can talk to your doctor about receiving pre-exposure prophylaxis. If one of you is potentially exposed (e.g. if a condom breaks during sex) you can also get a prescription for post-exposure prophylaxis, provided you do this within three days.
One of the hardest things about HIV is coping mentally and emotionally. This is in part due to the stigma that surrounds HIV and AIDS.
The good news is that there are many mental health services available to people living with HIV and AIDS. You can speak to your doctor or GP about counselling, or contact an HIV charity such as the Terrence Higgins Trust for help and advice.
How long can you live with HIV?
In the early years of HIV, life expectancy was fairly low. Today, with all the modern developments in treatment, life expectancy is much higher. In fact, many doctors believe that – with the correct treatment and lifestyle – HIV-positive people can live as long and healthy a life as their HIV-negative peers.
People who die from HIV have typically gone undiagnosed for a long time. Often, this means the virus has been allowed to develop into AIDS – in which the immune system is irrevocably damaged. To stop this from happening, you should get tested for HIV on a regular basis if you think you might be at risk.
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