Yes! HIV is a virus that works by entering into white blood cells called CD4 cells (part of our immune systems that protect us from illnesses). Once inside, the virus makes copies of itself, destroying the CD4 cells in the process. The most common type of treatment for HIV is called antiretroviral therapy, or ART. ART works by stopping the virus from being able to make copies of itself and spreading. Nowadays, people can take as few as 1-2 pills a day instead of the many pills people used to have to take. Your doctor can help identify the best treatment course for you and help make sure your body stays healthy while on medication.
HIV is the virus that causes what is called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. AIDS occurs when someone living with HIV goes untreated for a long time and develops a very weak immune system. A weak immune system leaves them vulnerable to other kinds of infections that they are unable to protect themselves against. Antiretroviral therapy is the most effective way to prevent a person living with HIV from developing AIDS.
No, as of yet there is no cure for HIV, meaning there is no way to completely eliminate the virus from the body. However, treatment today is so effective that the goal of almost all treatment regimens is to help people living with HIV reach a point called “undetectable”. Undetectable is where there is such a low amount of the virus in the bloodstream that it cannot actually be detected. This does not mean the virus is not there, just that it is at such a low level that it is not able to attack a person’s CD4 cells and not transmitted to other people via sex, as long as the person takes their medications every day. People living with HIV who are on treatment can live full, healthy lives and can live as long as someone who is HIV negative. Being undetectable is the best way for people living with HIV to protect themselves and their sexual partners – in fact it is so effective at protecting partners that people working in HIV call it “Treatment as Prevention”.
Modern treatment regimens come with far fewer side effects than older ones. Side effects can include nausea, headache, fatigue, and muscle pain, which often go away as the body gets used to the medications. Any medication has to be processed by the body through either the liver or kidney so doctors pay special attention to making sure those organs stay healthy while on medication.
The longer the virus goes untreated in the body, the more long-term damage it can do to the immune system. It will also start to enter deeper tissues in the body creating reservoirs of the virus that treatment may not be able to reach if a cure emerges for HIV. Getting into care means getting connected to a doctor who is able to monitor the virus and prescribe treatment appropriate to each individual. Once on treatment, the amount of the virus will start to decrease in the blood stream and the amount of CD4 white blood cells starts to go up, back to healthy levels.
Some important numbers that doctors pay attention to when treating someone living with HIV are the viral load and the CD4 count. The viral load is the amount of the virus in the blood stream. The CD4 count is the amount of CD4 white blood cells in the blood stream. Someone not on treatment can have a viral load as high as 100,000 copies of the virus per milliliter of blood, or higher. They can also have CD4 counts as low as 50 cells per microliter of blood.
Viral suppression: This is when the viral load is below 200 viral copies/milliliter of blood
Undetectable viral load: This is when the viral load is below 20 viral copies/milliliter of blood
Normal CD4 counts: 600-1500/microliter of blood
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