Living with HIV and staying healthy.

Monitoring health

In addition to maintaining general health and well being, HIV monitoring involves regular blood tests for: CD4+ cell count and viral load.

CD4+ cell count

CD4+ cells are found in the immune system and work to keep the immune system functioning properly. HIV reduces the number of CD4+ cells.

A normal CD4+ cell count keeps the immune system strong. As the CD4+ count drops, the immune system is weakened and is less able to prevent infection. Monitoring the CD4+ cell count is a way to determine the effect HIV is having on the immune system and indicates how well treatment is working.

Viral load

Viral load is a measure of the amount of HIV in the blood. If the viral load is high, this indicates an increased chance of transmitting HIV and increased strain on the immune system. A low or undetectable viral load indicates less or no chance of HIV transmission and enables the immune system to function well.

Talking about HIV status

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.