HIV & Me: A Woman's Guide to Living With HIV: Step 1 - Getting Smart About HIV

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. By taking care of your body -- which includes taking HIV medications that can control HIV -- you can prevent many HIV-related illnesses.

What HIV Does to Your Body: The reason HIV is dangerous is that 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 weakening your immune system, which 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 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.

Fortunata Kasege

"I eat right. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I try my best. ... I want to do everything right. I want to be there for my baby. I want to see her graduate from school."

-- Fortunata Kasege, diagnosed in 1997, mother of a 10-year-old, HIV-negative daughter

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 causes advanced HIV, also known as AIDS. Everyone who ever got sick or died from AIDS had one thing in common: They had HIV.

MYTH: HIV-positive women should not get pregnant.
REALITY: More and more women with HIV are giving birth to healthy HIV-negative babies. By working with an HIV-experienced obstetrician, an HIV-positive woman can reduce the risk of passing the virus to her baby to one or two percent.

MYTH: There's a cure for HIV, but only the rich have it.
REALITY: If rich people had a cure for HIV or AIDS, 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. Magic's wife, Cookie, has admitted that she was wrong to say that he was "cured." She meant that the medications he was taking had gotten rid of almost all the virus in his body, but he still remains HIV positive.

MYTH: Taking HIV meds means you don't have to practice safer sex.
REALITY: The drugs can get rid of nearly all the virus in your blood. Although this will decrease the risk of infection to your sex partners, blood 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.