HIV and ARVs: Stay on Top of Your Treatment and Live a Full, Healthy Life with an App
When It Comes to Living with HIV, You Need to Take Your Antiretroviral Drugs Exactly as Prescribed. Apps, like MyTherapy, Can Help You with Medication Management
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks and weakens the immune system, which is our body’s natural defense against illness. This means that the body becomes susceptible to many infections and illnesses and struggles to fight them off. If HIV is left untreated, it can take up to 10 to 15 years for the immune system to become damaged to a point where it can no longer defend itself at all. While contracting HIV used to mean a death sentence decades ago, treatment of the virus has improved drastically over the years, and people living with the virus can now live a long, normal, healthy life.
When it comes to treating HIV, strict adherence to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) is absolutely crucial. ARVs are wonder drugs, but they only work if you take them as per prescribed instructions. Remembering when to take medication isn’t always easy - especially if you are feeling well, which can be the case with an HIV infection. This is why it is important to have a strict schedule for medication intake. Smartphone apps, like MyTherapy, can help you with strict medication adherence and tracking your overall health and well-being.
If you’ve been diagnosed as HIV positive, then it is important that you start treatment as soon as possible. The earlier the treatment, the better. ARVs need to be taken exactly as prescribed in order for you to stay healthy and prevent transmission. MyTherapy has been clinically proven to increase adherence rates, so you can rest assured that the app’s medication reminders will help you take your antiretroviral medication everyday as prescribed by your doctor. To upload your ARVs and any other medication, all you have to do is scan the barcode of the packaging using the app’s built-in barcode scanner. You can also search in the app’s database or upload the medication manually. Once you have uploaded everything you need, you will be reminded to take your medication via an alarm (which can be set to vibrate or silent) and a pop-up notification. And if you want some privacy, you can set a passcode on the app so that only you have access to it.
MyTherapy also comes with a digital health diary, which you can use to track medication side-effects, symptoms, and any other important measurements and lab results (CD4 count, for example). You can also use the health diary to set daily exercise goals. At the end of each month, all the data you’ve logged in the app is compiled into a health report (in the form of graphs). You can then share this report with your doctor, allowing him/her to see how you are doing on the antiretroviral treatment and if anything needs to be changed or added to your treatment regimen.
Lastly, MyTherapy is consistently being updated based on feedback from our users. This ensures that the app is always tailored to your health needs. With good healthcare and treatment, you can live just as long as a person without HIV. Start MyTherapy today and make sure that you stay on top of your HIV medication and overall health.
HIV and AIDS: What’s the Difference?
It is important to understand that HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. HIV is a virus that attacks and weakens the immune system, whereas AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a set of symptoms caused by the HI virus and is the final stage of HIV infection.
HIV works by breaking down your immune system, making you less able to fight infections and diseases. It does so by destroying a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell (also known as a CD4 cell). It is these special cells that help the immune system fight infections. HIV uses CD4 cells to make more of the virus by making copies of itself inside the CD4 cells. As HIV destroys more CD4 cells and makes more copies of itself (called the HIV life cycle), your immune system becomes weaker and weaker. Therefore, the lower your CD4 count, the more you are at risk of opportunistic infections. This happens when infections basically take advantage of your weakened immune system.
A normal CD4 count between 500 cells/mm³ and 1,500 cells/mm³ is considered normal or healthy. In people that are infected with HIV, the CD4 count is significantly lower. If it falls below 200 cell/mm³, the immune system is severely weakened and a person is diagnosed with AIDS. Thus, AIDS is the most advanced stage of an HIV infection.
Recent statistics indicate that there are 36,7 million people living with HIV globally. In Western and Central Europe and North America, there are 2,1 million people living with the virus.
Transmission and Protection
HIV is present in certain bodily fluids of an infected person, such as semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood, and breast milk. HIV can be transmitted in the following ways:
- Having unprotected (without a condom) sex
- Sharing needles/ injections
- Mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy and birth
- Via breastfeeding
- Via contaminated blood transfusions
For the virus to be transmitted, these bodily fluids need to get into your blood through damaged tissue, open skin (like a cut), or a mucous membrane (e.g. inside the rectum, vagina, penis, or mouth). The virus can also be injected directly into your bloodstream.
Other bodily fluids, like saliva, sweat, and urine, do not contain enough HIV to infect another person. The most common form of transmission is via unprotected sex, so it is very important to use protection when engaging in sexual activities.
Important to note is that the virus can be transmitted whether you display symptoms or not. To protect yourself from infection, you can do the following things:
- Use a condom every time you have vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
- Take PrEP, which is a course of HIV drugs that prevents HIV infection through sex. PrEP is highly effective if taken correctly.
- Take PEP, which is a course of HIV drugs taken after a potential exposure to HIV infection in order to prevent infection. PEP, however, can only be taken within 72 hours of potential exposure.
- Avoid sharing needles, syringes, and other injecting equipment that isn’t sterile.
- Take HIV treatment if you are HIV-positive and an expectant mother, as this will drastically reduce the chance of your unborn child becoming infected.
- Take precautions if you are a healthcare worker (wear gloves, goggles etc.).
Some people with HIV experience no symptoms until several months (or even years) after contracting the virus. However, around 80% may develop flu-like symptoms about two to six weeks after infection. This short flu-like illness is also known as seroconversion. The symptoms may include:
- Sore throat
- Skin rashes
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Muscle aches
- Night sweats
In many cases, a person won’t experience any symptoms for years after the seroconversion phase. This is known as the clinical latency stage or chronic HIV infection. During this stage, the virus is still active and continues damaging the immune system. Eventually, the CD4 count falls below 200 cells/mm³ and the body’s immune system becomes very weak. At this point, a person is now diagnosed with AIDS (or stage 3 HIV). The symptoms of AIDS include:
- Fever and night sweats
- Extreme tiredness
- Rapid weight loss
- Swelling of the lymph glands (for example in the armpit, groin, and neck)
- Lung infections
- Sores around the mouth, anus, or genitals
- White spots on the tongue or mouth
If you think you may be HIV-positive but haven’t been tested, you should go and see your doctor, sexual health specialist, or local clinic immediately. They will do a blood test to confirm the diagnosis. Most HIV blood tests detect specific antibodies – proteins that the body makes in response to infections. However, it can take several weeks for the HIV-specific antibodies to be produced after initial infection (called the window period). Therefore, HIV blood tests may not be able to detect the antibodies and confirm the presence of the virus immediately after becoming infected. Most modern HIV tests can detect HIV four weeks after exposure. It is important that you let your testing site know when you may have contracted the infection. If the blood test is positive, further blood tests will be carried out to confirm the initial result.
If you receive a positive diagnosis, it is important to receive HIV counselling and not panic. Today, HIV is not a death sentence but a highly manageable chronic illness. You can do everything you did before infection and live a long, normal, and healthy life.
The Wonder Drugs
There is currently no cure for HIV, but research is looking promising. UNAIDS also believes that it is possible to end the AIDS epidemic if the world works together to reach the 90-90-90 target. This target aims to have 90% of all people living with HIV knowing their status, with 90% of these people receiving ARV treatment, and 90% of these people reaching viral suppression.
Treatment for HIV is therefore very, very effective and an HIV-free future seems to be a real possibility if everyone has access to and takes their HIV medication as prescribed. As already mentioned, the drugs used to treat HIV are called ARVs (antiretroviral drugs). The aim of the treatment is to reduce the levels of the virus in the blood, thereby allowing the immune system to strengthen, recover, and fight off other infections.
Current HIV treatment has to be taken every day, for life (unless there is a change in treatment options or a cure is found). HIV treatment is made up of three or more ARVs taken together. These drugs are sometimes combined into one pill. A recommended combination of ARVs for people beginning HIV treatment includes:
- TDF (tenofovir)
- 3TC (lamivudine) or FTC (emtricitabine)
- EFV (efavirenz)
Essentially, ARVs prevent the virus from multiplying in the body and therefore give the immune system the chance to repair itself. Different combinations of antiretrovirals work for different people, so the type of drugs you take will depend on your individual needs. It is very important that you do not stop your ARVs or skip doses, as the virus can develop resistance to the drugs. If you feel unwell on any of the medications, you should consult your doctor immediately so that he/she can make changes. As with all medication, ARVs can cause some side-effects, especially in the beginning. These side-effects usually subside after a few days but if not, you should talk to your doctor to come up with a solution.
Apart from taking antiretroviral drugs, you will also need to have yearly flu vaccinations to reduce any risks of getting ill. Moreover, leading a healthy lifestyle and exercising will boost your immune system.
Adherence to Antiretroviral Medication is Vital
Thanks to modern-day medicine, HIV is no longer a death sentence but a manageable chronic condition. With antiretroviral therapy, you can easily live a long, active, healthy, and normal life despite having HIV. However, ARVs only work if, and only if, you take them every day, as per prescribed instructions. Sometimes, remembering to take medication isn’t the easiest. Therefore, to support people living with HIV, smartpatient designed the medication reminder and health tracker app, MyTherapy. The app creates specific medication reminders for your ARVs, ensuring that you never skip a dose. You can also use the alarm-reminder function for doctors’ appointments. The app’s built-in health journal will also help you track your symptoms and medication side-effects and lets you record important measurements and lab values, such as CD4 count. With the app’s simple-to-use and practical features, you can effectively fight and manage HIV and stay on top of your treatment and health.