What does it mean to be HIV Positive (HIV+)?

It means you now have, floating around in your blood, a virus with the long name "Human Immunodeficiency Virus" (HIV for short). If you tested positive it means you have the virus. If you test negative, it could mean two things:

  1. you don't have the virus, or
  2. you haven't had it long enough for the test to see it.

That is why, if you think you may have been infected, you have to wait a few weeks before getting tested. If you get tested too soon, the test results may look like you don't have the virus, even if you really do. Warning: during the wait before you are tested, if you do have the virus, you can pass it on. Condoms, please!

A virus is just one kind of germ that can get inside your body and make you sick. Your body has an army to defend itself against attack. It is called your immune system. Like an army, it has different ways to fight the war.

One of the most important parts of your immune system army are "soldiers" called CD4 cells. Actually, the CD4 cell is more like an army officer- it organizes the battle so the other CD cell fighters can work best.

Basically, this is what happens:

  • an HIV virus enters one of your CD4 cells,
  • the HIV converts the CD4 cell into an HIV-making factory, and
  • tries to make as many copies of itself as possible.
  • When the HIV has used up all it can from the CD4 cell, the CD4 cell dies, while all the new HIV copies swim away to find more CD4 cells to attack.
  • When the new HIV copies find new CD4 cells, the whole process is repeated - and would keep repeating until you didn't have any CD4 cells left at all! That is what would happen if you didn't get treatment.

Once the HIV is in your system knocking off CD4 cells, you have fewer CD4's to help fight off other diseases. Usually germs attack a certain part of your body, depending on the germ (TB attacks your lungs, chicken pox attacks your skin, etc.) Your CD4 cells along with the other parts of your immune system kill off the germs, and you recover. HIV is so dangerous because it attacks your defence system directly. The HIV is just trying to make new copies of itself- have as many children as possible, so to speak. But, since it kills CD4 cells, your body is left with a weakened immune system. It is open to other diseases, but can't fight back.

After you got tested, you probably had a CD4 cell count. That is, the medical technologists actually counted how many CD4 cells you had in a cubic millimeter (about a drop) of blood. This told them how big your army was. The average healthy HIV- person may have a CD4 cell count of around 800 to 1500. When they test a person who is HIV+, the CD4 cell count is usually lower - HIV has been at work!

As the virus keeps killing off CD4 cells, the CD4 cell count keeps dropping. Your body has a harder and harder time fighting off other diseases. In order to stop that from happening, you can take drugs to slow down the virus and keep your CD4 cell count from falling. These drugs are called antivirals.

What is HIV/AIDS?
How do I know if I have HIV/AIDS?
HIV: Fact & Fiction

Last updated 15 November 2011

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