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Living with HIV


Transmission and viral load

There is less risk of passing on HIV if your viral load is undetectable because you are taking anti-HIV drugs. Not all scientists agree on how much the risk is reduced. Using condoms correctly is the most reliable way of preventing HIV from being passed on during sex. Effective HIV treatment also reduces the risk.

HIV and the immune system

The immune system is the body’s natural defence system. It’s a network of cells, tissues and organs inside the body. The immune system recognises and fights off pathogens (germs). HIV weakens the immune system, which means that common pathogens can cause infections and illnesses. HIV treatment strengthens the immune system.

Seven ways to look after your health

There’s a lot you can do to take care of your health. It’s not just about popping pills. Just as for anybody else, changes to your lifestyle can be good for your general health. Exercise, a balanced diet, sleep and giving up smoking are all important. Attending clinic appointment and having regular blood tests will tell you if you need to take HIV treatment.

CD4 and viral load

It’s important for all people with HIV to take regular blood tests. The two most important blood tests are for CD4 and viral load. A CD4 cell count tells you about the strength of the immune system, which protects us against infections and illness. Viral load measures how much HIV there is in a drop of blood. These blood tests give essential information about the effect HIV is having on your body.

An HIV treatment journey

This illustrated leaflet shows the journey a lot of people go on with HIV treatment. It involves the decision to start treatment, problems with side effects and adherence, changing treatment and then finding a treatment which allows you to live a long and healthy life. But please remember that each person’s situation is different. Your own circumstances may mean that the journey you take is slightly different.

When should I start treatment?

You may not need to take HIV treatment straight away. It depends on the effect HIV has had on your immune system. British medical guidelines recommend starting treatment when the CD4 count goes below 350. Taking treatment will prevent further damage to your immune system, and will mean there is less risk of getting ill in the future.

How treatment works

HIV treatment helps you stay well by reducing the amount of HIV in your body. All anti-HIV drugs try to prevent HIV infecting new cells, but different types of drugs do this in different ways. A combination of two different types of drugs provides a powerful attack on HIV. The aim of treatment is an ‘undetectable viral load’ – very low levels of HIV in the blood.

Undetectable viral load

If your viral load result is undetectable, there is only a little HIV in the body. The aim of HIV treatment is to have an undetectable viral load: this means that your HIV is being kept under control.

Taking drugs on time

For HIV treatment to work well, you need to always take your pills at the right time, without missing any doses. Taking anti-HIV drugs regularly will mean that there is always enough of the drugs in your body. This will keep HIV under control. Not taking drugs as prescribed can result in HIV being harder to treat in the future.

Side effects

The most common side effects are the result of your body getting used to a new drug. After a few weeks, these side effects usually go away. These side effects can include diarrhoea, feeling sick, feeling tired and disturbed sleep. Side effects that have long-term consequences for your health are less common.

Having a baby

Lots of people with HIV have had babies without passing on the infection. To do so, you need some help from your doctor. If you are a woman with HIV, it's important to take anti-HIV drugs during while pregnant, consider a Caesarean section and not breastfeed your baby. There are steps for men to take too.

Very recent infection

During the first few weeks after becoming infected with HIV, your body's immune system is working out what HIV is and how to get it under control. You may feel unwell for a short time (this is called seroconversion illness). In a few months, your immune system will get better at keeping HIV under control and you will feel better. Your doctor may recommend starting HIV treatment in some circumstances, such as if your CD4 count is below 350, or you have severe symptoms, but not everybody needs to take treatment straight away.

A healthy weight

There are usually two reasons why people put on too much weight - eating too much food and not doing enough physical activity. A balanced diet and regular exercise will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.

Drug resistance

It's important to always take your HIV treatment at the right times and in the right amounts. If you don't, HIV may become drug resistant. When HIV is drug resistant, some anti-HIV drugs do not work properly

TB and HIV

If HIV has weakened your immune system, you are more vulnerable to infection with tuberculosis (TB). TB is an infection caused by bacteria. It is a serious illness, but there is a cure.

How TB is passed on

The bacteria that cause tuberculosis (TB) can sometimes pass from one person to another through the air. When someone who is ill with TB in the lungs or throat coughs or sneezes, TB bacteria is released into the air.

Treatment for TB and HIV

If tuberculosis (TB) is making you ill and you also have HIV, then you usually need to take treatment for both TB and HIV. You can kill TB bacteria with anti-TB drugs. You can make your immune system stronger with anti-HIV drugs. This will help prevent you catching TB again in the future.

Transmission and the law

Some people have gone to prison because they have pased HIV on to another person. They were found guilty of recklessly transmitting HIV. In England and Wales, a person can be found guilty of recklessly transmitting HIV if they know they have HIV, they understand how HIV is transmitted, the person they have sex with does not know they have HIV, they have sex without a condom and they pass HIV on to the person they had sex with. The law is only broken if all five of these things are true.

More Testimonials

Living with HIV Stats & Facts

  • Black African MSM appear twice as likely to contract HIV as other ethnic groups

    (Sigma Research, 2011)

  • BAME MSM make up 0.1% of the total population in the UK, but 13% of MSM diagnosed with HIV.

    (Nastal-3, PHE, 2013)

  • Black MSM are also twice as likely to report homophobic attacks in their local area compared to the white population - 13% compared to 6% respectively

    (Stonewall, 2013)