If you are worried that 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?
That question is a little easier to answer now than it was a few years ago. In the last few decades, life expectancy for those diagnosed with HIV have increased dramatically. Thirty years ago, life expectancy was around 20 years. Now it’s not uncommon for someone living with HIV to have the same life expectancy as someone who isn’t HIV positive.
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 years old and who begins ART immediately can expect to live into their early 70s. Other studies have shown that life expectancy for people who are HIV positive can range from 35-60 years. For most people, HIV is controllable with ART. How long someone who is HIV positive will live now 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, have increased dramatically as well, as long as they are taking ART. And 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 benefits of ART, life isn’t always easy for someone who is HIV positive. 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 still carries a stigma.
Worrying about the possibility of transmitting the virus to a partner can also affect the quality of life for people who are HIV positive. The good news is that ART not only protects the health of the person who is HIV positive, but it also protects their partners from the risk of HIV infection. Several studies have shown that HIV positive people do not pass the infection to their partner if their viral load is low enough. “Undetectable = Untransmittable” is the title of a campaign aimed at encouraging ART use and reducing the spread of HIV. Undetectable means that the viral load (or the amount of HIV in the bloodstream) in an HIV positive person is so low that there is not enough of the virus present in body fluids to pass the infection on to a partner. It’s important to note, however, that this is not true for 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, have had an undetectable viral load for at least six months and must get retested on a regular basis.
While ART can eliminate the risk of transmission of HIV through sexual activity, it reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the risk of a mother passing HIV on to her child through breastfeeding or giving birth.
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 have HIV symptoms or think you’ve been exposed to the virus, you should 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, the sooner you can begin treatment.