If you’re like most people, HIV is not the only health issue you’re facing. Taking charge of your virus includes taking charge of your whole health—and testing positive is just the beginning
For many people, it takes time to adjust to the news of a positive diagnosis. This is a whole new item you’re dealing with in your life, and no one expects you to be able to do everything at once. Talking to others who’ve been through it can help you get over the first round of emotions, as well as provide guidance and aid as you figure out what’s next. When you come up for air, you’ll find there are lots of possibilities for how to manage your health—enough nowadays to make your head spin all over again. But once you’ve chosen a health care team, things will look a lot less confusing. Many people say the more they know about HIV, the better they are at dealing with it. Start with some basics:
What A Positive Test Means
A positive HIV test result means your blood has antibodies that fight the virus. Unlike the antibodies to some other diseases, these don’t get rid of HIV—the virus is here to stay. But a positive result does not necessarily mean you have AIDS.
In general, without taking HIV meds, a person won’t develop AIDS for about ten years after contracting HIV, as the virus eventually damages the immune system and makes them sick. For people who have had HIV for a while before being tested, illness can come faster. That’s why it’s important to see a doctor as soon as you are diagnosed. With today’s new HIV treatments, most people can keep their virus under control and not get ill for years or maybe never—it’s too soon to know. Even if you are pretty sick from HIV by the time you’re diagnosed, treatment can still suppress the virus and help your immune system recover.
Starting Out Right
Testing HIV positive motivates some people to take a good, hard look at their overall health. Your general health can make a difference in how you do with HIV—how soon you need to start taking meds, for example. And remember that HIV isn’t your only health concern and that you and your doctor are treating a whole person, not just a virus.
This could be the time to tackle health problems you’ve had for a while. You can get high cholesterol or diabetes under control, since some HIV meds could make them worse. Controlling other infections, including STDs like herpes (common among positive people), can make life with HIV easier. Dealing with depression can help you take meds—and enjoy life. This might also be the moment to kick bad habits—time to stop smoking, cut down on booze and drugs and start choosing healthful foods. These steps can support your body as it faces HIV. You’ll be seeing your doctor more often than before you were positive, and you can take advantage of that by piping up about issues above and beyond HIV.
At the same time that they get their HIV results, some people learn that they also have another unwelcome guest: the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Effective HIV treatment seems to slow liver damage and may make HCV treatment work better. But you and your doctor will decide whether to treat HIV or HCV first or tackle both at the same time. And learning how to take care of your liver’s health—by avoiding street drugs, cigarettes and too much alcohol, for instance, and by drinking lots of water and eating smaller, more frequent meals—can help, whether you have hepatitis or not. If you start taking HIV meds, you’ll probably want to boost your liver’s health, since it will be doing a lot of work absorbing and processing those meds.
There are other health issues to consider as well. When you walked into that office to get your HIV test results, your family health history walked in with you. If you have diabetes or kidney or heart disease in your family, you and your doctor will want to discuss that. The virus itself, as well as some HIV meds, can worsen some of these conditions (and some meds can interact with treatments for those conditions). So it’s wise to take family history into account when you choose an HIV combo (or decide when or whether to start taking HIV meds).
There’s no way to sugarcoat an HIV diagnosis and pretend it’s a good thing. But you can turn that diagnosis into a stepping stone to more active involvement in caring for your overall health.
With support from his doctor, Alexander McMeeking, Gregory Huang-Cruz manages diabetes along with HIV
When Gregory Huang-Cruz, 41, a California-bred New Yorker, was diagnosed with HIV in 1999, he was already taking oral meds for diabetes. Once he knew he was positive, he says, “It became complicated, because some HIV meds at that time were known to enhance diabetes.” He stayed off HIV meds until a rising viral load and falling T-cell counts made treatment necessary. Then, he and his doctor chose a combo that meshed well with his diabetes med-taking program.
After that right combo had his HIV well under control, Huang-Cruz had to start exercising, since it’s been shown to help control diabetes. An enlarged heart had made him afraid of too much exertion, but now he and his doctor agreed that it was time to get off the couch. There was a new regimen in the kitchen too. “I had to make some dietary changes that were difficult, giving up a lot of starches,” Huang-Cruz says. “I had too much blood sugar, so excess starch had to go.” A nutritionist helped, showing him how to replace rice, noodles and fried foods with vegetables and still end up with delicious meals.
What’s made it all doable has been his relationship with his doctor, Alexander McMeeking, MD. “His encouragement really helps me,” says Huang-Cruz who trains doctors in HIV care. “It’s a deep bond, and together we maintain my health so well that I am able to be extremely productive.” Huang-Cruz used his HIV diagnosis as a starting point to deal with his whole health picture. In fact, he says, learning he had HIV forced him to pay more attention to how he was approaching life with diabetes. “My doctor encourages moderation in all things,” he says, “and that helps me manage my diabetes along with HIV.”
You can also use this time to kick harmful habits like smoking, drinking too much and using recreational drugs. It’s devilishly hard to do that, but it’s more important now than ever. It will help to improve your life as well as your chances for successful HIV treatment. You might even end up feeling better—and that wouldn’t be a bad thing!