If you or someone you know has recently been diagnosed with HIV—or human immunodeficiency virus—you probably already know that it slowly compromises the immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to other kinds of infections and cancers.
However, treatment can make a lifesaving difference. Today, researchers have developed effective medication for HIV that allows people to live for decades after becoming infected with HIV. In fact, studies have documented that 20-year-olds who are HIV-positive and receiving proper HIV treatment can expect to live another 50 years of life, on average.
Typically, doctors will prescribe a combination of anti-retroviral drugs (which cuts down the level of the virus already in the blood, also known as the “viral load”), and medication to treat any accompanying illnesses caused by HIV. For example, someone who is HIV-positive may also easily contract tuberculosis due to their weakened immune system, so they would then need to take medication for tuberculosis as well.
Doctors consider a few different factors when creating a medication treatment plan for HIV:
T-cell count: As HIV/AIDS progresses, the T-cell count lowers. T-cells fight infections in the blood, so a more advanced HIV/AIDS will require stronger medication to make up for a weaker immune system.
The presence of commonly associated illnesses, infections, and complications
Treatment for HIV is lifelong because there is no cure, at least for now. Ignoring treatment or skipping HIV medication doses could cause the viral load to increase, leaving the body more susceptible to infections. The goal of HIV treatment is to reduce the viral load to levels so low that the HIV virus is undetectable so the person with HIV can live a relatively normal life.
Even with treatment, a patient may still transmit HIV to others, but anti-retroviral medication reduces that risk by 95 percent. Still, it’s important to follow safe practices to limit the risk of transmission: use a latex condom for all sexual activity, limit the number of sexual partners, and don’t share needles or inject illicit drugs.
If you have risk factors for HIV or are showing HIV symptoms, be sure to get tested. (Find out what you can expect at a test for HIV here.) Starting treatment for HIV can dramatically improve your prognosis, so detecting the virus early is key for management.