As recently as the late 1980s, an HIV infection usually meant an early death. Within a few years or even a few months of contracting the virus, people would develop AIDS, a disease that destroys the body’s ability to defend itself from threats including viruses, bacteria and some types of cancer cells.
Since HIV can quickly cause damage to your immune system and can lead to AIDS, getting timely treatment can help improve life expectancy. With the right treatment, you can help prevent the virus from developing into AIDS, improving both your life expectancy and quality of life. Today, people with HIV are living a long time due to the many highly effective treatments available. Modern treatments for HIV, such as highly active antiretroviral therapy, prevent the HIV virus from multiplying and destroying the immune system. This keeps your body strong and healthy by helping you fight off life-threatening infections and preventing HIV from progressing to AIDS.
Once you are diagnosed with HIV, it’s important to find an HIV provider you can build a trusted relationship with. Work with your HIV provider and family physician to address your HIV, obtain the right treatment and, most importantly, take care of yourself. You and your physician should work to develop a personalized plan to slow the progression of the disease. This will generally include:
Health maintenance interventions: Get routine vaccinations for diseases, such as tetanus and diphtheria and an annual flu shot.
Disease prevention: Obtain regular cholesterol and cardiac screenings, blood-pressure checks, colonoscopies, mammograms, pap smears and other screenings tailored to risk factors.
Antiretroviral therapy: Antiretroviral drugs are usually used in combinations of three or more drugs from more than one class, called “combination therapy.” Combination therapy helps prevent drug resistance. Manufacturers are researching ways to make their drugs easier to take, and have combined some of them into a single tablet regimen.
Getting the right treatment is just one part of staying healthy. You also need to live a healthy lifestyle and protect your body. Here are some ways to maintain your health:
Eat a balanced diet. Healthy eating is a good defense against HIV. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. If your medications reduce your appetite or cause stomach trouble, you’ll need to make an extra effort to get the nutrition you need. Discuss your nutritional needs with your doctor or a dietitian who is familiar with HIV.
Talk with your doctor about vitamins and supplements. A general multivitamin can supplement your diet, but you might also benefit from supplements like selenium, which has been shown to boost immunity in HIV patients while suppressing level of virus in the body. Other helpful supplements include vitamin D and calcium for bone health and iron to fight anemia, especially for menstruating women.
Exercise regularly. Exercise can improve lean body mass; decrease fat, stress, fatigue and depression; and improve strength, endurance and cardiovascular fitness. It may also help the immune system work better.
Practice safe sex. Take precautions to reduce your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and infecting others.
Quit smoking. And don’t use any recreational drugs or medications not prescribed for you.
Relax and get enough sleep. There’s evidence that stress and fatigue will speed up the progression of HIV disease. Getting enough sleep will also give your body the strength and energy it needs to fight your illness.
Jennifer Patterson, DO, is an infectious-disease physician at Mercy Suburban Hospital, in East Norriton. For more information, call 610-275-0200.