If you can achieve an undetectable viral load, you can live a relatively normal life.
Today’s treatments for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) can help patients live relatively normal lives. People who are diagnosed today can expect to live a lifespan similar to someone without HIV. Still, it’s important to know that HIV treatments (antiretroviral therapy) do not cure the illness. Instead, they help people with HIV achieve an undetectable viral load.
Keeping your viral load low means your HIV likely won’t progress to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). An undetectable viral load is great for protecting your own health, but it also helps others. That’s because it reduces the risk of transmitting HIV to others.
What Is an Undetectable Viral Load?
Your viral load refers to the amount of virus in your bloodstream. Viruses like HIV like to grow and replicate in the body. When they do this, they take over your body’s own cells, which can seriously affect your health. In the case of HIV, the virus attacks your CD4 T cells, which is an immune cell that helps protect your body from illness. That’s why uncontrolled HIV makes you more vulnerable to simple infections.
Medicines for HIV (which are known as antiretroviral therapy) help prevent HIV from replicating in the blood. As a result, the viral load does not increase, and your CD4 T-cell count remains normal. The goal is to achieve an undetectable viral load. This means that there are such low levels of HIV in your bloodstream that a standard blood test doesn’t detect it.
However, the HIV is still there, and it’s important to continue taking your antiretroviral medicine as prescribed by your doctor. If you start missing doses, the HIV may begin replicating again, and your viral load will likely increase.
Benefits of Undetectable HIV
When you have an undetectable viral load, you can almost live as though you don’t have HIV. The benefits include:
- Low risk of advancing to AIDS
- Normal levels of CD4 T cells, which reduces your susceptibility to other illnesses
- Lower risk of transmitting to others through sex or IV drug use
- Ability to have a relatively normal sex life with a partner with a low risk of transmission
- Lower risk of premature death from HIV/AIDS
Of course, these benefits rely on your consistency when taking your HIV medications. Missed doses may result in a viral load “blip,” or an increase in your HIV viral load. When this happens, you may have a higher risk of transmitting HIV to others or contracting infections.
Stella A. Safo, MD, is an HIV primary care physician and assistant professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
- 10 things to know about HIV suppression. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (Accessed on July 8, 2021)
- HIV treatment as prevention. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on July 8, 2021)
- Preventing sexual transmission of HIV. Washington, DC: HIV.gov. (Accessed on July 8, 2201)