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Teens and HIV: The Transition Into Adulthood

January 17, 2017

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The teen years bring a variety of physical, mental, and emotional changes that can be both exciting and challenging. For you, a teen living with HIV (HIV+), the transition into adulthood can be even more challenging because you have to live and cope daily with a chronic condition. Life may seem overwhelming at times. However, learning about teen development and how these changes affect your feelings and behavior can help make things a little easier.

If you would like to find out more about teens' risk of acquiring HIV, see our fact sheet on What Parents and Providers Need to Know about HIV Risk and Teens.

Physical Changes

A teen's body grows faster than any time since infancy. During a "growth spurt," a boy can add four inches of height and a girl three inches of height. Body weight increases, too, and while this normal weight gain includes both muscle and fat, boys tend to add proportionally more muscle and girls add proportionally more fat. During puberty, hormonal changes in boys can cause a deeper voice, facial hair, and hair under the arms and in the pubic area. Girls begin to develop breasts, get fuller hips, and grow underarm and pubic hair. Even the brain is growing and maturing.


It is common for teens to feel self-conscious about these changes, especially if they grow at a faster or slower rate than their peers. Teens living with HIV may also have additional physical issues. If you are starting new HIV drugs, you may have some uncomfortable side effects, such as nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, muscle pain, or fatigue. Usually these go away after the first two or three weeks as your body adjusts to the new drugs.

Sometimes HIV drugs can cause a body change called lipodystrophy. This is a weight gain in the central part of your body, such as your stomach, chest, shoulders, and waist. Lipodystrophy can also include a loss of fat in the face, arms, legs, hips, and buttocks. These body changes may also make you feel self-conscious about your appearance, and can leave some teens with feelings of poor self-image and low self-esteem. Some young people may want to stop taking their HIV drugs. It is important that you talk to your health care provider if you are feeling this way so that you take the necessary steps to improve your health. The good news is that newer HIV drugs do not cause lipodystrophy nearly as often as older HIV drugs did.

While increased growth makes it important for all teens to eat a healthy diet, it is important for you to make a special effort to protect your immune system by eating a balanced diet, getting enough rest, and exercising regularly. If you are not getting all the vitamins and minerals you need for your growing body from the foods you eat, you may consider taking supplements after consulting with your health care provider.

Mental Development

In addition to physical growth, your mental processes of perception, memory, and judgment will develop during your teen years, as will your emotional and decision-making abilities. Even adults living with HIV find that taking HIV drugs every day can be annoying, hard to remember, and maybe difficult to hide from others. HIV drugs can be a constant reminder of your condition. In addition, you may be embarrassed about regular school absences that you take to visit your health care provider. All of this may make you feel more self-conscious and sensitive to what others may think of you.

It is common for many teens to think that things happen and people react in certain ways because of them or something they did. Sometimes, unfortunately, this can lead to feelings of low self-esteem. Teens who do not feel good about themselves are more vulnerable to peer-pressure and more likely to make poor decisions about their health. They may seek the approval of others (peers) to make up for not having a positive view of themselves.

As a result, they may be more tempted to use drugs or alcohol, or to engage in unsafe sexual activity. Those with self-esteem problems may also experience problems with depression, or have suicidal thoughts. If this is true for you, it is very important that you talk to your health care provider or another trusted adult. There are many ways to get help feeling happier and more confident about yourself, and to learn to make better, more empowering decisions. If you are having thoughts of hurting or killing yourself, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at any time in the US at 1-800-273-8255. Click here to access the world map of the International Association for Suicide Prevention and find crisis centers with help near you.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.

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