6 Things I Wish My Patients Knew About Staying Healthy With HIV
The progress made over the last few decades in treating and understanding human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is one of the greatest and also most complex medical success stories of our time. While there is not yet a cure for HIV, many patients can expect to live a near-normal lifespan, have children without transmitting the virus, and have healthy sex lives. But because misconceptions about the disease are still common and the medical community is still studying HIV drugs’ long term effects, effective patient education about living with the virus is critical. Here’s what patients should know.
1. HIV is manageable, but still serious.
HIV is no longer the death sentence that it was believed to be 30 years ago. Today, it can be successfully controlled with medications. However, I think this fact is still unknown for some people diagnosed with HIV, although it’s at the same time over-emphasized for others. Because we have a set of relatively successful medications that can be taken as one pill once a day with minimal side effects, I’ve seen a growing number of patients not take an HIV positive test result as seriously as they should. While I want my patients to know that their disease is not a death sentence and it is controllable, they still need to be diligent in their treatment to prevent giving HIV to others. That’s why I promote a holistic approach to treating HIV–it’s about more than taking your medication regularly. Keeping your virus in check is also about living a healthy overall life.
2. Your treatment regimen is a lifestyle change.
It’s common that an HIV diagnosis is the first time in a patient’s life that he or she has ever been put on a treatment regimen. This can be very difficult for some people to adjust to, especially younger patients who aren’t used to taking medicine at all. I try to educate all my patients that, while the drugs available are effective in controlling the virus and in allowing a patient to live a near-normal life, the consequences of not adhering to the prescribed plan can be severe. If you fall into the habit of skipping doses of your medication, you run the risk of developing resistance to that drug. Drug resistance is serious in HIV cases–the medication could become totally ineffective in suppressing the virus.
That being said, there are several ways patients can make sticking to their regimen easier. For most patients, taking pills in the morning or the evening works best depending on their lifestyle, but regardless, they should take them around the same time every day. I suggest setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to take the medicine at the same time every day. I also recommend that patients develop a system for following their regimen, like filling a pill box with slots labeled for each day of the week. That way you can keep track of which days you’ve taken medication while establishing a habit.
3. Proper exercise, food, and cleanliness can make all the difference.
In the absence of a cure, HIV patients need to take care of their whole body to stay healthy with HIV. Nutrition and exercise are two key components for anyone trying to live a healthy lifestyle, but for an HIV patient they are especially important. Drinking enough water, cutting back on fried foods, sugar and heavy portions, as well as making sure you take time to work out, can give your body the best chance possible to fight the virus. I recommend you talk to your doctor about finding a nutrition plan and exercise routine that is right for you.
It’s also important that people with HIV avoid getting infections. Preventing infections by washing your hands often and practicing safe food handling methods further reduces your risk of getting sick. Cleanliness and the risk of infection is one of the biggest concerns associated with HIV. In reality, if you are taking your medication regularly and your viral load is suppressed, the chance that the disease could be transmitted to someone else is extremely low.
4. HIV increases your risk of other health issues.
Since HIV puts you at a higher risk of contracting other conditions like heart disease, making healthy lifestyle changes like staying physically active and eating well after your diagnosis are essential. Even if your viral load, or the amount of HIV in your body, is under control, you could still have the potential to develop heart disease as a result of having HIV. I counsel my HIV patients to develop positive lifestyle habits like eating a heart-healthy diet, cutting back on alcohol consumption and quitting smoking to reduce the risk factors for heart disease. HIV patients are also at a higher risk of developing kidney disease and liver disease, so talk to your doctor about strategies to prevent these conditions.
Certain oral hygiene issues, like gum disease, are also associated with HIV. Lower your risk of these problems by practicing proper dental hygiene and keeping regular dentist appointments. Good oral hygiene is just another way to move towards living a healthy life.
5. Emotional support is crucial.
In my experience, people who aren’t sharing their situation with a close circle of friends and family are less likely to be compliant with their treatment. There are a still a lot of stigmas and misconceptions surrounding the disease, so many people are unwilling to share their status with others, especially after they are first diagnosed. I’ve had patients tell me they didn’t take their pills for a few days because they didn’t want the person they were visiting to know about their HIV medication. While I recognize that some people live in less accepting environments, I encourage you to confide wherever possible in a small group of people who can support you as you learn to cope with your HIV and stick to a treatment regimen.
Building a strong support system and a good relationship with your physician can also help you cope with the emotional burden of living with a chronic illness like HIV. Remember, your mental and physical health are intertwined; we know patients who are depressed are at a higher risk of not regularly taking their medicine. Building a network of supportive relationships can be a real lifestyle change for some people, but thankfully there are growing numbers of support groups and clinics dedicated to helping you move forward with your illness. This can have a big impact on your treatment’s success.
6. You can live a full life with HIV.
The medical community now has more scientific knowledge and treatment options for HIV than ever before. Today, HIV patients can usually live a near-normal life if they stick to their regimen and make decisions to improve their overall health. Even so, this disease is complex, and I encourage you to be completely open with your healthcare providers as you work to suppress your HIV.