What Does "HIV-Positive" Mean?
If you have just been diagnosed with HIV, you may have many questions: What does it mean to be HIV-positive? Does it mean that you have AIDS? Is HIV manageable? What are some of the first things you need to think about and do?
Being diagnosed with HIV means that you have been infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and that two HIV tests—a preliminary testand a confirmatorytest—have both come back positive.
Once you have been infected with HIV, you will always carry it in your body. There is no cure for HIV. It is a serious, infectious disease that can lead to death if it isn't treated. But there is good news: by getting linked to HIV medical care early, starting antiretroviral therapy (ART), adhering to your medication, and staying in care you can keep the virus under control, and live a healthy life.
Being HIV-positive also means that it is possible for you to pass the virus along to others, including your sexual partners. If you are female, you could also pass it along to your unborn child. Through treatment for HIV disease, you can suppress the virus and reduce the chances of transmitting HIV to others.
Do I Have AIDS?
Being HIV-positive does NOT necessarily mean you have AIDS. AIDS is the most advanced stage of HIV disease. If you are diagnosed early, start treatment, and adhere to your medication, you can stay healthy and prevent the virus from developing into AIDS. Ask your healthcare provider for more specifics about exactly what stage of HIV infection you have. To learn more, see Stages of HIV Infection.
Is HIV Manageable?
Yes, today HIV is a manageable disease. HIV medications have significantly changed the course of HIV infection since the early days of the epidemic and with the proper care and treatment, you can live a healthy life.
The sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better. Early treatment with antiretroviral drugs and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well. Prompt medical care prevents the onset of AIDS and some life-threatening AIDS-related conditions.
To view the personal stories of others who have been diagnosed with HIV and learn how they managed their infection and got the virus under control with medication, visit AIDS.gov’s Positive Spin.
Newly Diagnosed Checklist
Here is a checklist to help you take the first steps toward managing your infection.
- Don’t panic—just breathe. This is life-changing news but you have options to protect your health. There are HIV medicines to treat HIV infection and help you stay healthy.
- Find an HIV care provider, even if you don’t feel sick. Your HIV care provider will be the person who partners with you to manage your HIV. He or she will monitor your health on an ongoing basis and work with you to develop a treatment plan. It’s never too early to start treatment. Current guidelines recommend treatment with ART for all people with HIV, including those with early infection. If you don’t have a regular doctor, your HIV testing location or your local health department can help you find an HIV care provider. Or, you can use the AIDS.gov HIV Testing and Care Services Locator to find a provider near you.
- Prepare for your first appointment. Your first appointment with your HIV care provider can cause anxiety. Make a list of questions before you go. Making a list is a good way to organize your thoughts. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers a list of sample questions you can bring with you. Remember: there are no stupid questions! For more on this, see You and Your Provider.
- Do some research. After you have listed your questions, take some time to understand what it means to have HIV. You can read the information on this website, visit other trusted websites (see below for some suggestions), read printed materials (from your testing center or local library), talk with your healthcare provider, or take advantage of community resources.
- Find a support system. This is one of the most important pieces of managing a new HIV diagnosis. You can find support among friends, family, or members of your community. If you are not ready to tell other people about your HIV diagnosis, that’s ok. Look to community resources and professional organizations that offer support groups for newly diagnosed people, one-on-one counseling, peer counselors, or health educators.
- Begin thinking about whom you want to tell. Disclosing can be one of the hardest parts about managing a new diagnosis of HIV. It’s important to remember that you do not need to tell everyone all at once, and that there are systems in place to help you. At this time, it is important to disclose your HIV status to your healthcare providers and sexual partners. Please see Talking About Your HIV Status.
Prevent HIV Transmission
You also need to take steps to avoid giving HIV to anyone else:
- Use ART. ART reduces the amount of virus (viral load) in your blood and body fluids. ART can keep you healthy for many years, and reduce your chance of transmitting HIV to your sex partners if taken consistently and correctly.
- If you are taking ART, follow your health care provider’s advice. Visit your health care provider regularly and always take your medication as directed.
- Use condoms consistently and correctly with every sexual contact. When used consistently and correctly, condoms are highly effective at preventing HIV. To learn more, see Using Condoms
- If your steady partner is HIV-negative, talk to him or her about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), taking HIV medicines daily to prevent HIV infection. The CDC recommends PrEP be considered for people who are HIV-negative and at substantial risk for HIV infection. This includes HIV-negative individuals who are in an ongoing relationship with an HIV-positive partner, as well as others at high risk. For more information, see our page on PrEP.
- Talk to your partners about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) if you think they have had a possible exposure to HIV. An example of a possible exposure is you have anal or vaginal sex without a condom or the condom breaks and your partner is HIV-negative and not on PrEP. Your partners’ chance of exposure to HIV is lower if you are taking ART consistently and correctly, especially if your viral load is undetectable. Your partners should talk to their doctors right away (within 3 days) if they think they have had a possible exposure to HIV. Starting medicine immediately (known as post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP) and taking it daily for 4 weeks reduces your partners’ chance of getting HIV. For more information, see our page on PEP.
- Don’t share needles, syringes, or other drug paraphernalia with anyone. To learn more, see Substance Abuse Issues.
- Choose less risky sexual behaviors. Oral sex is much less risky than anal or vaginal sex. Anal sex is the highest-risk sexual activity for HIV transmission. If you are HIV-positive, receptive anal sex (“bottoming”) is less risky for transmitting HIV than insertive anal sex. To learn more, see Lower Your Sexual Risk of HIV
- Get tested and treated for STDs and encourage your partners to do the same. If you are sexually active, get tested at least once a year. STDs can have long-term health consequences. They can also increase the chance of getting HIV or transmitting it to others. Find an STD testing site.
Frequently Asked Questions
If I am diagnosed with HIV, can a healthcare provider tell who gave me the infection?
No. HIV tests cannot determine who gave you the infection.
If I am diagnosed with HIV, can I tell when I got it?
In general, no. A skilled healthcare provider can generally estimate how long you have been infected by looking at the levels of virus in your body, your CD4 (T-cell) count, and whether or not you have had any opportunistic infections. If you are currently suffering from symptoms of acute HIV infection, a healthcare provider can usually conclude that infection occurred within the past few weeks. (For more on acute HIV infection, see Stages of HIV Infection.)
If I am diagnosed with HIV, will I have a normal lifespan?
Life expectancy for many people living with HIV who start treatment early, remain adherent to HIV medications and stay in care is similar to that of HIV-negative individuals.
Last revised: 04/10/2015