Can HIV Kill You?

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With an early diagnosis and proper treatment, the life expectancy of a person with HIV is near that of someone without the virus. While an HIV diagnosis can raise many questions and fears, the outlook for patients living with HIV has improved significantly over the past 30 years.

Getting prompt treatment for HIV results in a substantial improvement in prognosis. Since the year 2000, the number of deaths from HIV has been steadily declining. 

Left untreated, HIV will progress to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in most people. While death rates from AIDS have declined globally, the condition increases susceptibility to opportunistic infections—which can lead to death. And there is no cure for HIV, even with treatment. It is a chronic condition that requires lifelong disease management.

HIV vs. AIDS

HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s cells that help fight infection. When HIV is left untreated, the virus can progress to the advanced stage of HIV infection known as AIDS. AIDS occurs when HIV badly damages the body’s immune system and the body becomes more susceptible to certain infections. Most people in the United States who are being treated for HIV will not progress to AIDS.

How Long Can You Live With HIV?

If you are being treated for HIV with antiretroviral therapy, you can expect to live nearly as long as someone without HIV. Starting and remaining on antiretroviral medications has been shown to decrease mortality and improve quality of life.

Maintaining quality healthcare is key to living a long, healthy life with HIV. If you have been diagnosed with HIV, but are not taking adequate treatment for the disease, it is recommended you seek medical care.

People who take HIV medicine can reach a viral load that’s undetectable. When the viral load drops below 200 copies/milliliter (mL), it can't be detected with a blood test. Having a low viral load is the best thing you can do to stay healthy and prevent transmitting the virus to others.

AIDS-related deaths have decreased globally by 60% since the peak in 2004. In 2019, around 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide, compared to 1.7 million in 2004, and 1.1 million in 2010.

Across the world AIDS deaths have declined with the introduction of combination antiretroviral therapy (ART). In 2019, 67% of all people living with HIV were accessing treatment. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which are at the center of the epidemic, have mortality rates similar to patients receiving ART in North America However, barriers to treatment still exist for people in many areas of the world.

Life expectancy for patients who are not receiving treatment drops significantly. Delaying or refusing treatment will allow HIV to continue to damage your immune system and put you at risk for an opportunistic infection that could be deadly.

What are Antiretroviral Medications?

Antiretroviral medications, or ARTs, work by suppressing the HIV virus to stop disease progression. They are recommended for all people with HIV. Treatment should start as soon as possible. While ARTs do not cure HIV, they help patients live longer and healthier lives.

Opportunistic Infections

The HIV infection itself doesn’t kill you. It leads to death by weakening your immune system and putting you at risk of other conditions. These include opportunistic infections that can occur when the disease has progressed to AIDS. Common conditions that develop due to the immune dysfunction of AIDS include pneumonia, tuberculosis, and certain cancers, such as Kaposi sarcoma or Burkitt lymphoma.


An HIV treatment plan coordinated with your doctor is critical to survival.

People who have HIV are more prone to opportunistic infections when:

  • They don’t know they have HIV and are not on treatment
  • They know they have HIV but are not receiving treatment
  • They are receiving treatment, but it is not adequately controlling their HIV.

Stages of HIV

The HIV timeline has three stages of progression. When people with HIV do not receive treatment, they will typically progress through all of these phases. With treatment, progression to stage three is far less likely.

Stage 1: Acute HIV Infection

In the acute stage of HIV infection, you may have flu-like symptoms or experience no symptoms at all. During this stage, there is a large amount of HIV in the blood and you are very contagious.

Stage 2: Chronic HIV Infection

During the chronic HIV stage, HIV is active, but you may have no symptoms. You can still pass the virus on to others.

If you take HIV medication, you may remain in this stage indefinitely and never progress to the next phase. However, if you are not treated, this stage may last a decade or longer but could progress faster. 

Stage 3: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)

Stage 3 (AIDS) is the most severe stage of HIV. In this stage, your immune system is quite damaged and you are more prone to severe illnesses and recurring opportunistic infections.

Without treatment, the typical survival rate is three years. With treatment, many patients can resume healthy lives.

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