AIDS Awareness Month, observed in December, promotes a greater understanding of the impact of HIV and AIDS on our society. If you’ve tested positive for HIV or are living with AIDS, you know how important it is to take good care of yourself. Thanks to modern medicine, HIV isn’t the terminal diagnosis it was just forty years ago. Thanks to antiretroviral therapy and a host of other scientific advances, a person with HIV can expect to live a normal lifespan. And, of course, you can only help yourself by eating well, getting enough sleep, and making time for regular exercise. Here, I’ll tell you more about the healthy habits that can help you live a long and fulfilling life with an HIV diagnosis. It’s all about taking good care of yourself—every day.
What is HIV?
Let’s begin with a quick primer on what HIV is. You probably remember hearing about it in high school health class: Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s just as it sounds: a virus that attacks your immune system (your CD4 cells, to be precise), making it more difficult for your body to fight off infections. HIV can be spread through sexual contact (namely vaginal or anal intercourse) and by sharing needles or other injection equipment. It’s also possible for a mother to pass it to her unborn child during pregnancy or the delivery process, although medical advancements have greatly reduced the risk. For a primer on the ways HIV can be transmitted (as well as ways it cannot), check out the CDC’s HIV guide.
When you’re first infected with HIV, you’re usually unaware of it. Within two to six weeks, some people who have contracted the virus may experience flu-like symptoms, including headache, fatigue, and fever. These can be the first signs of HIV infection, but you can’t be sure until you see your doctor for a blood or saliva test. Note that some people who contract HIV may not have any symptoms at all. That’s why it’s so important to get tested as soon as possible if you believe you’ve been exposed to the virus. It’s the single best way to protect your health, since you’ll want to start on a course of antiretroviral therapy if you are, in fact, HIV-positive. Getting tested is also crucial if you’re sexually active, as it will help you keep any HIV-negative partners safe.
Living with an HIV diagnosis means you’ll need to take medication to keep the virus in check. Without any treatment, HIV inevitably progresses to AIDS, short for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV infection and results in a severely compromised immune system, leaving you vulnerable to opportunistic infections like herpes, toxoplasmosis, and a number of cancers. The good news is that if you take your medication as prescribed, you can prevent HIV from replicating and attacking your immune system. Moreover, every positive lifestyle choice you make for yourself, like eating well and exercising regularly, will help bolster your good health.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight After HIV Diagnosis
Maintaining a healthy weight when you’re HIV-positive can be a delicate balance. Your weight may fluctuate based on the way the virus affects your body and the medication you’re prescribed. The virus itself can decrease your appetite, and your body expends extra calories to fight off infections, resulting in weight loss. On the other hand, antiretroviral therapy medication can cause you to put on weight. Nowadays, people in the U.S. living with HIV are more likely to be overweight than people without it.
It’s important to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly, whether you’re HIV-positive or not. Living with the virus simply means it’s even more crucial. Eating fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein foods can help you to stave off serious health issues like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The same is true of getting exercise five to seven days a week for at least thirty minutes, which also leads to decreased stress and improved sleep. And you don’t have to run a 5K or live at the gym to enjoy these benefits. Taking a brisk walk during your lunch hour counts as exercise, and you’ll enjoy the fresh air too. Think of it as giving yourself a little extra TLC.
Your medical care provider will explain how you can strengthen your immune system. You can’t eliminate the virus from your body simply by making good lifestyle choices, but you can give yourself every advantage to stay healthy. In addition to diet and exercise, avoid tobacco use and alcohol, and make your best effort to manage your stress levels.
AIDS Awareness Month: Make it Count
AIDS Awareness Month is all about knowing the facts so that you can live your best life. Here are some important things to remember:
- If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, get tested as soon as possible. The sooner you receive a diagnosis and treatment plan, the better.
- If you’re diagnosed with the virus, be sure to follow your doctor’s orders, keep all your appointments, and take your medication as prescribed.
- Ask your doctor about daily behaviors that will help you thrive. Together, you can map out an eating plan to help boost your immune system with food and an exercise schedule that’s right for you.
- If you’re sexually active with a partner who is HIV-negative, you can minimize the risk of virus transmission by using condoms, as well as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) medication.
- Ask for help when you need it. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, it’s okay to reach out to a mental health professional. Even if your condition is well controlled, managing a chronic condition can be daunting at times.
As a society, we’ve come a long way in treating HIV and helping HIV-positive individuals to lead long and fulfilling lives. That said, living with a positive diagnosis is not without its challenges. So please remember that you deserve to feel good and be healthy, so take great care of yourself.
What are some questions you have about HIV and healthy living? Let me know in the comments section, and I’ll try to answer them in a future post.