Healthy Life

Daily Dose – Living a Full, Healthy Life with HIV

Healthcare providers have good news to share about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – about daily medication that can reduce the virus to almost undetectable levels and about the high quality of life that people with HIV can have. All of that good news, however, relies on patients getting tested and getting care.

For this reason, we make a big deal out of National HIV Testing Day on June 27. But here’s an open secret: We don’t care when patients come in for a test, only that they do.

“You can live healthy and fully with HIV,” says Benjamin Simmons, MD, a family medicine doctor with Atrium Health. “If patients are compliant with their medication and doing their regular follow-ups, HIV is absolutely a manageable condition.”

National HIV Testing Day promotes the importance of regular testing. As part of the ONE Charlotte Health Alliance, a partnership between Atrium Health, Novant Health and the Mecklenburg County Health Department to improve the health and well-being for every community, Atrium Health uses the day to raise awareness of HIV testing sites around the Charlotte area and how crucial (yet simple) these tests are.

“The earlier you get tested for HIV, the more likely you are to retain your white blood cells and your immunity, and so the further you go from ever getting AIDS. That’s why National Testing Day is really important,” says Sveta Mohanan, MD, a family medicine doctor with Atrium Health. “It’s about getting tested before you have complications.”

Most people don’t realize how far medicine has come in treating HIV. If you haven’t read about HIV recently, here’s a chance to catch up on the basics:

What is HIV?

HIV is a virus of the immune system that attacks white blood cells in the body. It is transmitted through sexual contact and intravenous exposure which occurs when sharing needles. HIV is not the same as AIDS. Late-stage HIV patients who do not receive treatment may go on to develop AIDS.

Who should be tested for HIV?

Anyone between 13 and 64 who has been sexually active or has had any risk behavior since their last HIV test, or anyone who’s never had an HIV test, should be tested. If there’s a possibility that your partner engages in risk behavior, you should get tested as well.

What should I expect during an HIV test?

The test takes about 20 to 30 minutes, and involves a cheek swab and a draw of blood. Results usually come back in two or three days. Testing sites follow social distancing protocols to keep you safe, and confidentiality laws protect your privacy. “No one will know what you’re getting tested for, except for the person taking the sample,” Dr. Mohanan says. “The test is personal, it’s confidential and it’s protected.”

If I am HIV positive, would I have symptoms?

Probably not. Most people who are HIV positive experience no symptoms. “Sometimes, people have a flu-like illness about six to eight weeks after exposure that they’ll write off as a really bad cold. But then they will go back to being asymptomatic,” Dr. Mohanan says. “That’s why screening is important, even if you have no symptoms.”

How does HIV affect quality of life?

“Living a full, healthy life with HIV is totally doable,” Dr. Simmons says. “Patients need to be aware that living fully means that they can have happy, healthy relationships with significant others. And, with consultations with their doctors, they can also start families of their own.”

Patients with HIV need to take medications as directed and keep up with their follow-up appointments. Managing HIV with medication has gotten much easier over the past decade. Usually, it’s one daily pill that has minimal side effects, and it’s covered by most insurance programs. Patients who manage HIV with medication can reduce their viral load to nearly undetectable levels. In addition, people who are HIV-negative but have HIV-positive partners or engage in risk behavior can take daily medication to greatly reduce their chances of becoming HIV positive.

How often should I get tested?

Get tested every six months if you engage in any risk behavior or if you believe that your partner has. “The earlier you get tested, the more of your immunity and lifespan you preserve, and the fewer complications you’ll have,” Dr. Mohanan says. Receiving an HIV diagnosis earlier helps prevent an AIDS diagnosis later.

How common is HIV?

Nearly 7,000 people in Mecklenburg County live with HIV, and about 10 percent of them aren’t aware that they’re HIV positive, according to estimates by the county’s health department. About 73 percent are male, and about 27 percent are female. They include all races and sexual orientations, single and married people.

If I don’t have insurance to pay for HIV treatments, should I still get tested?

Yes. A safety net of local, state and federal programs can help uninsured or underinsured patients pay for HIV care. “We have grant programs to help with copays, we have coupon cards and we have social workers who help patients enroll in federal and state programs,” Dr. Mohanan says. “The most important thing for patients to do is to get in touch with a provider. If you are HIV positive, and you are uninsured or underinsured, we can’t help you unless we know about you.”

How does Atrium support patients with HIV?

“Because of the size of our staff and our providers’ commitment to care, we have an incredibly diverse community of HIV providers,” Dr. Mohanan says. “At Atrium Health, you can find someone whom you click with and whom you trust.”

We understand that stress, fear and financial concerns commonly come with an HIV diagnosis. Not only do we offer HIV care, but we can connect our patients with mental health providers, community resources and social workers as well. Our role is not just to treat a virus, but to care for people.

Find a Mecklenburg County HIV testing site near you, and learn more about Atrium Health’s Expert Treatment of HIV/AIDS.

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