Whether you think you, a partner or a loved one might have HIV or are dealing with a recent diagnosis, there’s one question that’s probably on your mind: how long can you live with HIV?
The good news is, that question is a little easier to answer now than it was a few years ago. In the last few decades, life expectancies for those diagnosed with HIV have increased dramatically. Thirty years ago, the life expectancy of someone living with HIV was around 20 years. Now, it’s not uncommon for those living with HIV to have the same life expectancy as someone who isn’t HIV positive. However, the chances of this happening greatly depend on early diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Antiretroviral treatment (ART) that begins early and is taken regularly can significantly increase the chance that someone with HIV will live a long healthy life.
According to research by the North American AIDS Cohort Collaboration on Research and Design, a person diagnosed with HIV when they’re 20 who begins HIV therapy immediately can expect to live into their early 70s. Other studies have shown that life expectancy estimates for people who are HIV positive can range from 35-60 years.
For most people, HIV is manageable with ART, and ART can give people who are HIV positive a normal life expectancy and excellent quality of life. With regular and prolonged ART, how long someone who is HIV positive will live largely depends on the same factors that would affect the life expectancy of someone who isn’t HIV positive.
Life expectancies for people diagnosed with AIDS, or stage 3 HIV, had increased dramatically as well, going from an expectancy of 1-2 years to 8-10 years today. While AIDS was once considered an inevitable stage of HIV, many people who are diagnosed with HIV and use ART will never have their HIV develop into AIDS.
Still, despite the improvements in life expectancy and quality of life with a strict ART regimen, the life of someone who is HIV positive isn’t always easy. Many people who are diagnosed with HIV struggle with their emotional and mental wellbeing in addition to their physical health. It can be tough, especially if the diagnosis is recent, to live with an illness that has a stigma and implications as negative as those surrounding HIV.
Something that can also affect the quality of life and is commonly a concern for people who are HIV positive is the possibility of transmitting the virus to their partners. The good news is that ART not only improves the health of the person who is HIV positive, but it also protects their partners from the risk of HIV transmission. In the last few years, many doctors, researchers and health organizations, including the CDC, have found statistically significant data that supports the theory that a person who is HIV positive will not pass the infection to their partner if their viral load is low enough. This concept is sometimes referred to as “Undetectable = untransmittable.” This means that the person who is HIV positive has a viral load so low that there is not enough of the virus present in sexual fluids for an infection to occur. It’s important to note, however, that this is not true of everyone who is HIV positive. In order to meet the acceptable standards for this protection, the person who is HIV positive must be taking ART every day and have had an undetectable viral load for at least six months.
While ART can eliminate the risk of transmission of HIV through sexual activity, it doesn’t eliminate the risk of transmission from breastfeeding or giving birth, so HIV could still be passed from a parent to a child in this way, though ART does help to significantly reduce these risks.
Regardless of how you look at it, the outcomes for those living with HIV or AIDS have significantly improved in the last few decades. If you think you might be displaying HIV symptoms or have reason to believe that you’ve been exposed to the virus, it is important to seek testing as soon as possible. With HIV Early Detection testing, or RNA testing, you can get conclusive results as early as nine to eleven days. The sooner you know your status and can begin treatment, the sooner you’ll know how long can you live with HIV.