Getting an HIV diagnosis might be shocking. You probably don’t look sick. In fact, you might feel and look very healthy. But early treatment is key to controlling your infection and protecting the people closest to you. Here are the most important steps to take from the moment you find out you have HIV:
Learn about HIV treatment.
Experts currently recommend starting treatment with antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as you know you have HIV. This should happen even if you don’t feel sick or have symptoms. ART and other treatments recommended for HIV can prevent your illness from getting worse. ART can also reduce the chance that you will give HIV to someone else. If you’re a pregnant woman, taking ART can help prevent transmission of HIV to your unborn child.
Find the right doctor.
Many people live with HIV for decades—some are nearing normal life expectancy. That makes it important to choose a doctor who you can work with for a long time. An infectious disease specialist with experience working with HIV patients is ideal. You can find a doctor through referrals from your family doctor, through your health insurance program, or through the government’s HIV/AIDS treatment website, developed for underserved populations. You can also search for an infectious disease specialist at Healthgrades.
Visit your doctor regularly.
Whether or not you start HIV medications, you’ll need regular checkups so that your doctor can keep track of your HIV. If you’re taking medication, your doctor will also want to check how it’s helping you. Visit the National Institutes of Health to learn more about what to expect from your doctor appointments.
Make a plan to tell friends and loved ones.
You do not have to tell friends and family about your HIV status immediately. Those who need to know right away are the people who might have caught HIV from you. This is most often through bodily fluids either during unprotected sex or by sharing needles. They can get tested and find out their HIV status. If you can’t tell them or don’t want to, your state’s health department can tell them without revealing your name. Also, let your other doctors and your dentist know that you have HIV.
You cannot spread HIV to family members, friends, or coworkers just by sharing a house, a workspace, or even food and drinks with them. You can take time to figure out how you want to tell them about your HIV status. Many people are afraid to tell others because they fear losing those relationships. If you find you’re having trouble starting the conversation, talk to a counselor or social worker to get advice about when and how to talk to loved ones. The Well Project offers ideas about how to have these conversations.
Current medical treatments make it possible to live with HIV for a long time, but to do so—and do so well—you have to take control of your treatment and your relationships. Close friends and family who know about your HIV status can offer you support and compassion throughout your antiretroviral therapy and the uncertainty of living with HIV.