Once you find out that you are HIV positive, one of the most important things you can do is get informed.
THE FACTS ABOUT HIV: There are hundreds of different kinds of viruses in the world. Some are just annoying, like the viruses that cause colds. Others, like HIV or the hepatitis C virus, can cause serious, even life-threatening, illnesses. How can you prevent HIV-related illnesses? By taking care of yourself -- which includes taking HIV medications that can control HIV.
WHAT HIV DOES TO YOUR BODY: HIV is dangerous because it sets up shop in your immune system, your body's natural defense against disease. It especially targets your "CD4 cells," also called "T cells," which your body uses to fight infections. HIV takes command of these cells -- like a pirate taking over a ship -- and uses them to reproduce itself, creating millions of new viruses every day and slowly but surely weakening your immune system, which is what can put you at risk for developing potentially dangerous illnesses.
The stronger your immune system, the longer it can keep up the fight against HIV. If you treat your immune system well -- especially by taking care of yourself, reducing stress, avoiding alcohol and not smoking cigarettes or using recreational drugs -- your immune system may be able to keep HIV in check for years.
But even if you treat your body well, HIV can still eventually get the upper hand. Then it's time to call in the big guns: HIV medications. We'll talk more about HIV medications later. First, let's dispel some myths about HIV.
"At first, I was scared to start treatment. I knew a little bit about HIV, but I was pretty ignorant. I had heard stuff like, 'medications kill people,' crazy stuff like that. When I started treatment, I had side effects like diarrhea for a couple of months. But it went away and I haven't had any problems at all, after that."
-- Raúl Roldán, diagnosed in 2006
Myth Versus Reality
Even though the facts about HIV are well known and agreed upon by every HIV specialist and every single HIV/AIDS organization in the United States, there remains a lot of misinformation about HIV.
MYTH: HIV can be transmitted through everyday contact.
REALITY: There are absolutely no documented cases of HIV being transmitted casually through handshakes, hugging, sharing cups or dinner plates or using the same bathrooms.
MYTH: HIV doesn't cause AIDS.
REALITY: After 25 years, there is a mountain of proof that HIV can cause life threatening illnesses and advanced HIV, also known as AIDS. Everyone who ever got sick or died from AIDS had one thing in common: They had HIV.
MYTH: Taking HIV meds means you don't have to practice safer sex.
REALITY: HIV meds can get rid of nearly all the virus in your blood. Although this will decrease the risk of infection to your sex partners, blood, semen and vaginal fluids still contain HIV. This means that protected sex is the rule to keep your partner safe. Plus, you can get in serious legal trouble if you don't tell your partner about your HIV.
MYTH: HIV is a gay disease.
REALITY: Tell that to the more than 125,000 women living with HIV in the United States. Or to the men who got HIV through heterosexual sex or intravenous drug use.
MYTH: There's a cure for HIV, but only the rich have it.
REALITY: If rich people had a cure for HIV or AIDS, people like Magic Johnson, who is a multimillionaire, would be cured. Yes, Magic looks fantastic and -- even with HIV -- is healthier than many HIV-negative Americans. But that's because he takes care of himself and is on HIV treatment -- the exact same treatment available to everyone with HIV in the United States.