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Caring for yourself and others with HIV/AIDS

two African-American women sorting out weekly medication for one woman at a kitchen table

If you have HIV/AIDS or you're caring for someone who does, there are many things to think about. Below are some issues to consider.

Symptoms of HIV/AIDS

Many people have no symptoms when they first get HIV — some even have no symptoms for years. Some people may get symptoms of acute retroviral syndrome. These are signs of HIV that appear after infection but eventually go away. These signs are similar to those of other illnesses, so they can be overlooked. Symptoms include:

Prevent the flu

If you are living with HIV and have flu-like symptoms, take steps to avoid passing the illness to others and contact your doctor right away. Call your doctor right away if you think you have been exposed to the flu. Learn more about flu prevention.
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Swollen and sore throat
  • Skin rash
  • Muscle aches or pain

With a weakened immune system, people with HIV/AIDS can get opportunistic infections (OIs). These are infections that usually don't make a healthy person sick. When a woman's CD4 count drops below 200, or when an OI is present, her HIV infection has become advanced. At this point she has AIDS. Possible signs of AIDS are also listed below. There are many other symptoms for different OIs.

Possible symptoms of HIV and AIDS
Possible HIV symptomsPossible AIDS symptoms
  • Feeling very tired
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Frequent low-grade fevers
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Night sweats
  • Diarrhea, vomiting, and weight loss
  • Mouth, genital, or anal sores
  • Rash or flaky skin
  • Vaginal yeast infections that are hard to treat or keep coming back after treatment
  • Pneumonia
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lack of coordination
  • Fever
  • Pneumonia
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Bad headaches
  • Problems swallowing
  • Problems thinking and remembering things
  • Severe and persistent diarrhea
  • Loss of vision
  • Nausea, stomach cramps, and vomiting
  • Cancers of the skin or immune system

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Treatment side effects

There is no cure for HIV or AIDS, but treatment can slow down the disease. This way, it will take more time for HIV to progress into AIDS. But treatment can cause side effects. Some of these side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Changes in how body fat is distributed on your body, called lipodystrophy (lip-oh-DISS-truh-fee)

Project Inform offers more information about side effects.

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Nutrition

Eating healthy foods and preparing them safely is especially important for someone with HIV/AIDS. A healthy diet can help you keep a healthy weight and immune system. A good diet can even help the treatment work better. If you're having problems like a sore mouth, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting, or if treatment has affected your sense of taste or your appetite, eating right might be tough. Talk to your doctor or nurse for help. He or she may recommend that you see a nutritionist.

Learn more about how to have a healthy diet while living with HIV, and about how to prepare food safely to avoid other infections.

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Substance abuse

Alcohol and drug use is common among people infected with or at risk of getting HIV infection. Using alcohol or drugs can impair judgment and lead to risky behaviors. This puts people in danger of getting or giving HIV. Even if you already have HIV, using drugs puts you at risk of being infected with other strains of HIV, or with other diseases, like hepatitis C and tuberculosis. Drug and alcohol use also can interfere with your treatment. Your treatment might not work as well, you might have worse side effects, or you might forget to take your medicine. Substance abuse also can lead to mental health problems or make them worse. Talk to your doctor if you can't stop using drugs or alcohol. Your doctor can help you find a drug or alcohol treatment plan that will work with your HIV treatment.

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General health

Getting immunized

People who are HIV-positive need different vaccines than people the same age who don't have HIV. Some vaccines, such as the flu vaccine, are more important to get because you have HIV. You need to prevent from getting an infection your body can't fight. An infection could make your HIV worse. Other vaccines, such as the measles vaccine, may be more harmful if you have HIV and your immune system is not working well. Talk to your doctor about which vaccines you need and which to avoid. Learn more at vaccines.gov.

If you are HIV-positive, you might be focused on your HIV treatment and think less about your overall health. But thanks to treatment, many people with HIV are living long lives. This also means that as women with HIV age, they will face health problems common in all older women. These problems include heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, arthritis, and some cancers. Ask your doctor what you can do to lower your risk of other health problems. Ask what preventive screenings you might need. There are many things you can do on your own to prevent diseases and other health problems. Not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, making healthy food choices, and exercising are all good steps. Keep in mind that HIV is only one aspect of your overall health.

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Content last updated: July 01, 2011.

Resources last updated: July 01, 2011.

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