Day One: After You’ve Tested Positive (Here’s What To Do)

doctor holding hiv test tube
A positive HIV test is scary news…but it’s no longer a 100% death sentence. As better therapies continue to be developed, it’s entirely possible to live a more normal life. The key? Being informed and taking charge of your health.

Despite all the support you will get, particularly in the beginning, the real work is up to you. Given the right attitude and the right information, most people can live longer than they could when HIV/AIDS cases were first being diagnosed.

After your positive diagnosis, you need to do:

  • Develop a strategy to adapt to your new situation.
  • Learn more about HIV and how it can affect you.
  • Understand the medical tests you’ll use.
  • Find ways to promote and maintain your health.

HIV and Your Immune System

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Being HIV-positive does not mean that you have AIDS, but it does mean that you may develop AIDS. HIV attacks your immune system, gradually impairing how it functions.

Your immune system helps keep your body healthy by recognizing and attacking foreign substances, like viruses or bacteria. Over time, if it becomes seriously damaged or weakened by HIV, your body loses its ability to fight certain infections and cancers. These are called oppor­tunistic infections (OIs).

AIDS is the most serious outcome of HIV infection. It occurs once your immune system has been significantly damaged. If you have certain OIs, it will lead to an AIDS diagnosis. This is because the presence of these OIs in your body points to a significantly damaged immune system.

An AIDS diagnosis will also be given if the counts of your immune system cells (called CD4+ T cells or simply CD4s) fall below 200. These cells are the key players in your immune system. Their “normal” range in a healthy HIV-negative person is 500–1,500 cells/mm3.

This gradual destruction of the immune system doesn’t happen the same way in everyone, or even at the same pace. In some, it may not happen at all. In a small percentage of people, HIV destroys their immune systems very rapidly, in just a few years. But others remain well for 10–15 years or longer. On average, without using HIV therapy, most people remain well for about ten years before facing their first serious symptoms.

A number of things are well known about HIV infection: Viral load tests measure the amount of HIV in the bloodstream. They can generally predict how quickly HIV will damage the…