January 3, 2011

Wisely manage and aggressively treat HIV

Testing positive for HIV no longer carries a death sentence, because medical and pharmaceutical research have developed ways for HIV-patients to control their infections and maintain their health.  If you have tested positive for HIV, however, you must seize the initiative for managing your health and your healthcare.  First, secure the assistance and counsel of a physician with training and experience in managing HIV; your regular primary care physician probably is not qualified to give the kind of detailed and specialized care you need.  As soon as you have consulted with your physician, begin the course of care the doctor lays out for you, and do not vary from the prescriptions without discussing your options with your caregiver.

Medicate

Your physician will prescribe a potent cocktail of anti-retroviral medications and immune system boosters.  The meds radically slow the disease’s progression by inhibiting the virus’s capacity to reproduce, but they do not cure the disease.  Most specialists advise a combination of anti-retrovirals called HAART.  Although the components of HAART remain constant, dosages vary from patient to patient, so that your doctor will stress the importance of carefully following instructions in your treatment plan.  Your treatment probably will include multi-vitamins and dietary supplements; most experienced physicians will advise that you consult with a nutritionist to set-up a healthy diet, because “wasting” numbers among the leading symptoms of HIV.  “Healthy diet” here means nothing extreme; instead, it signifies lots of fruits and vegetables and lots of lean meats—the stuff your mother always said you should eat.

            HAART may cause side effects, so that you should make certain you understand the risks before you finish your first consultation with your doctor.  Most side effects are mild and manageable, but they frequently mimic HIV symptoms, so that you should consult your doctor if you experience severe stomach distress, headaches and body aches, profuse perspiration, or fever.  Your doctor will schedule regular appointments for blood tests and other diagnostic procedures; always capitalize on those opportunities to ask questions and register complaints and concerns.

Protect yourself and your loved ones.

Because the virus has compromised your immune system, you are exceptionally vulnerable to “opportunistic” infections—especially flu and pneumonia.  In fact, more HIV patients suffer severe complications from influenza and pneumonia than suffer from HIV’s advance to AIDS.  Therefore, get vaccinated.  Moreover, because HIV is most frequently transmitted by intimate sexual contact, get the full panel of tests for other sexually-transmitted diseases, which may be fatal if they go untreated.  Health officials recently have reported spikes in the rates of syphilis and gonorrhea in major American cities, and Chlamydia and hepatitis continue at near-epidemic rates.  Especially on or near America’s largest college campuses, as many as one in four undergraduates have some kind of STD.  Get tested and get treatment. 

            If you are in a committed relationship and you and your partner elect to continue sexual relations even with your infection, you absolutely must practice safe sex.  If you have engaged in risky sexual behaviors, stop. You also incur a social responsibility to alert your previous sexual partners of your HIV-positive status, so that they can seek diagnosis and testing.  Meanwhile, neither you nor your family should panic.  Although the condition is undeniably serious and demands some serious lifestyle changes and choices, it is manageable.  Your physician will probably refer you to an especially well-qualified HIV counselor, who will help you manage the emotional and relational ramifications of your diagnosis.

            If you smoke or chew tobacco, quit.  Whatever it takes to quit completely, do it. Smoking alone increases your susceptibility to opportunistic infections, and smoking in combination with HIV makes you especially prone to sever upper respiratory problems and heart disease.

Immediately contact your physician

If you develop breathing problems—serious congestion or deep wheezing, shortness of breath or persistent cough that fails to respond to over-the-counter remedies, make the call or go to the emergency room.  If you run a fever for more than two days and regular NSaid pain relievers do not seem to affect it, get professional help right away, because a fever signals your body’s fight against an infection.  Severe weight loss also signals your need to visit your doctor—especially if it results from persistent diarrhea.  Your diet probably will help you lose between five and ten pounds over the course of about six weeks; but if your weight drops precipitously, contact both your physician and your nutritionist.

Similarly, contact your doctor right away if you experience mouth problems, such as thrush (white spots), sores, change in taste, dryness, trouble swallowing, or loose teeth.  Your doctor probably will encourage you to visit your dentist at least twice a year, and you should enlist your dentist’s services in aggressive treatment of your condition.

Educate yourself and your loved ones.

You are the best advocate for your own health and well-being.  The more you and your family understand about the symptoms of and treatments for HIV, the more you can extend your life and enhance its quality.  For up-to-date and accurate information about HIV, call the Centers for Disease Control, or visit the Centers’ websites:  CDC-INFO at 1-800-232-4636; the CDC Internet address, www.cdc.gov/hiv/ and http://aidsinfo.nih.gov/contentfiles/

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