Strategies and tips for people with HIV for keeping track of your health and staying healthy.

If you have HIV, it’s important to closely monitor your health and well being - whether or not you are taking anti-HIV drugs. You don’t need to become an expert on “viral loads” and “CD4+ cells,” and you will receive professional support, but it helps to be as informed as possible.

Here’s what you need to know about keeping track of your health, and some practical tips for staying healthy.

Why monitor your health?

Monitoring your physical and emotional health with your health care provider lets him or her spot potential problems and take action to address them. Because the HIV virus breaks down your immune system, you can be at threat from serious diseases if your treatment isn’t working.

And because every person with HIV is different, it can affect everyone differently. Seeing your health care provider regularly helps him or her provide you with the best treatment for you.

If you are not taking anti-HIV drugs, monitoring your health lets you:

  • Keep track of how the HIV virus is affecting your immune system
  • Watch out for signs of life-threatening infections
  • Think about when to start therapy

If you are being treated, it lets you:

  • Monitor any side effects
  • Ensure that the HIV drugs are working effectively
  • Spot signs that your body is resisting HIV drugs

How to monitor your HIV

As well as keeping track of your general health and well being, monitoring your HIV involves regular blood tests to keep an eye on two things in particular: your CD4+ cell count and your viral load.

What is your CD4+ cell count?

CD4+ cells are found in your immune system. It’s their job to keep your immune system functioning properly so it can protect you from harmful germs. HIV attacks and kills CD4+ cells, reducing their number (or cell count).

Your CD4+ cell count indicates your immune system’s strength. As your count drops, you are more at risk of getting a serious infection than people with a healthy immune system. Monitoring your CD4+ cell count tells your health care provider how well treatment is working or how quickly the HIV virus is attacking your immune system.

What is your viral load?

Your viral load is a measure of the amount of HIV in your blood. Your health care provider will monitor your viral load over time to look for trends in how it is changing. If your viral load is high, that means your immune system is under serious attack from the HIV virus.

By monitoring viral load in people who are not taking HIV drugs, your health care provider can recommend the best time to start treatment. If the medication is effective, your viral load should reduce within four to six weeks of beginning treatment.

Read CATIE’s guide to managing your health for more information, including the types of tests your health care provider might request.

How to monitor your general health

As well as monitoring the HIV virus in your body, there are other things you can look out for to help you stay healthy, including:

  • General health: Are you eating properly and getting enough rest and exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle?
  • Sexual health: Are you protecting yourself against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and enjoying a healthy sex life?
  • Mental health: How are you coping with your HIV in your work, social and family life?
  • Heart health: Do you smoke? Are you maintaining your heart health through diet and exercise?
  • Diabetes: Are you watching your blood sugar levels for signs of diabetes?

Learn more about these and other things that are good to monitor if you have HIV.

Tips for staying healthy

Here are a few things you can do to stay as healthy as possible.

  • Consider supplementing your HIV treatment with acupuncture, massage and/or naturopathy.
  • Look after your emotional health by taking up a stress-relieving activity such as yoga or Thai Chi and finding someone you can talk to honestly, such as a friend, doctor or counsellor.
  • Find a health care provider with experience treating people living with HIV and visit him or her regularly.
  • Talk to your health care provider in detail about what HIV drugs might be best for you.
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
  • Exercise regularly to help your physical and mental health.
  • Try to get enough sleep and rest so you start each day refreshed.
  • If you smoke, consider quitting.
  • If you use drugs or drink alcohol, consider stopping or limiting your intake.