Can HIV Kill You?

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With an early diagnosis and proper treatment, an HIV positive patient can expect to live nearly as long as someone who is HIV negative.

While an HIV diagnosis can raise many questions and fears, the outlook for patients living with HIV over the last 30 years has improved significantly. When a patient is treated for HIV their life expectancy increases substantially. Since the year 2000, the number of deaths from HIV has been steadily decreasing. The life expectancy of a person with HIV is near that of someone without the virus.

As treatments continue to improve, and patients receive more specified care and adhere to their doctor’s recommendations, the prognosis becomes even better. What was once a feared and frequently fatal virus has now become a livable chronic condition.

However, there is no cure for HIV and early diagnosis and treatment are key. Left untreated HIV will progress to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). While death rates from AIDS have declined globally, AIDS still makes patients more susceptible to opportunistic infections which can lead to death.

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 late stage of HIV infection known as AIDS. AIDS occurs when HIV badly damages the body’s immune system and the body can no longer fight off infection. 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. People who take HIV medicine can reach a viral load that’s undetectable. A low viral load is defined as having less than 200 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood.

Having a low viral load is the best thing you can do to stay healthy and prevent transmitting the virus to others. If you have been diagnosed with HIV, but are not on treatment, it is recommended you seek medical care. Access to quality healthcare is key to living a long, healthy life with HIV.

Starting and remaining on antiretroviral medications has been shown to decrease mortality and improve quality of life. In the early years of the epidemic, the outlook was bleak, but HIV positive patients now have a much better future to look forward to.

Treatments have improved—there are fewer side effects and the medications are easier to take. There is more support for people living with HIV, less stigma around the disease itself, and increased social networking.

In 2019, 67% of all people living with HIV were accessing treatment, however barriers to treatment still exist in areas where healthcare is not as established. Even so, across the world AIDS deaths have decreased with the introduction of combination antiretroviral therapy (ART). Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which are at the center of the epidemic, have decreased their mortality rate to levels similar to patients receiving ART in North America

What are Antiretroviral Medications?

Antiretroviral medications, or ARTs, work by suppressing the HIV virus to stop the progression of HIV disease. 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

HIV alone doesn’t kill you, instead it weakens your immune system to the point where you are more at risk of other conditions. These other conditions are known as opportunistic infections and occur when the disease has progressed to AIDS. These infections can include things like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and certain cancers such as Kaposi sarcoma or Burkitt lymphoma.

People who have HIV are more prone to opportunistic infections when they don’t know they have HIV and are not on treatment, when they know they have HIV but are not receiving treatment, or when they are receiving treatment but it is not controlling their HIV. An HIV treatment plan coordinated with your doctor is critical to survival.

HIV patients who seek treatment early and adhere to their doctor’s plan of care can expect a near normal life expectancy. 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.

However, 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.

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. Luckily, with treatment, progression to stage three is far less likely than it was at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

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. In this acute infection stage, only antigen/antibody test or nucleic acid tests can diagnose the infection.

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.

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