HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It’s a virus that damages your immune system and makes it harder for you to fight off infection and disease. AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. This term is used to describe a variety of dangerous (and potentially life threatening) illnesses that happen when your immune system has been weakened by HIV.
Currently there is no cure for HIV, this means once you receive a positive diagnosis, you will always have the HIV virus. However, drug treatments now mean most people with the virus can live long, healthy lives. An early diagnosis and effective treatment allow most people with HIV to avoid any AIDS-related illnesses.
The treatment of HIV involves antiretroviral medications. These stop the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system time to repair itself and prevent further damage. A combination of drugs is needed as the virus adapts quickly and can become resistant.
Some HIV treatments have been added together in just one pill – this is known as a fixed-dose combination. These cost more to prescribe but mean less medications to remember. The combination of medication you take will be tailored to you.
Effective treatment can make HIV undetectable. This means the virus level is so low it is undetectable by tests. This doesn’t mean the virus is no longer there, however it does mean it won’t be passed on.
While HIV is no longer necessarily a life-threatening diagnosis, it is still a life-long condition that will impact your life considerably. Understandably then, you’re bound to feel some psychological impacts.
If you already struggle with some aspects of your mental health, for example if you have suffered depression, anxiety or low self-esteem, getting a diagnosis can make these symptoms worse. If your mental health has been good, you may still find it difficult to adjust to your diagnosis.
Worrying about your future, your health and telling people is all quite common. You may find you start to isolate yourself. Sadly, there can still be stigma surrounding HIV as well as a lack of understanding. This can all affect how you feel about yourself.
If you find yourself struggling after your diagnosis, isolating yourself, feeling low or bad about yourself, you could benefit from seeking support. You may find it helpful speaking to other people who have HIV. You could join a support group (online or in-person) or you could try group therapy.
You may prefer to speak to a counsellor one-on-one about how you’re feeling. Speaking to someone who has experience treating clients with HIV is beneficial as they will have a greater understanding of what you’re going through and the psychological impacts.