Facts About HIV: Life Expectancy and Long-Term Outlook

Written by Robin Madell | Published on December 13, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 13, 2013

HIV Prognosis

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, currently has no cure. Once you are diagnosed with HIV, you may always be a carrier of the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

But having HIV is not the same thing as having AIDS. With the right treatment, you can help prevent the virus from developing into AIDS, improving both your life expectancy and quality of life.

Stretching the Possible

The prognosis for people with HIV has significantly improved over the past two decades. Many people with HIV can live long and productive lives.

How long? It’s difficult to tell exactly since most of the current treatment regimens are still relatively new. But the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) reports that many HIV patients are living longer than the 15 years that medications have been around. The agency also reports that, more often, patients are dying from causes other than AIDS.

See a list of 37 HIV prescription medications »

Reasons for Improvement

Twenty years ago, being HIV-positive was a death sentence. If you were diagnosed with HIV, you would get AIDS within the next decade. Most patients were expected to die within two years of developing AIDS.

Fortunately, new tests, treatments, and technological advances for HIV have greatly improved this formerly grim prognosis.

When HIV-infected patients begin treatment in a timely manner, they can have a good prognosis. It helps to start treatment before any significant decline in the functioning of the immune system takes place.

HIV Over Time

While prognosis has gotten much better for those with HIV, there are still some long-term effects to be aware of.

As time passes, people with HIV may begin to suffer from certain side effects of treatment. They may also experience increased symptoms from the HIV infection itself.

Over the long-term, your body may undergo a shift in how it processes sugars and fats. This can lead to having more fat in certain areas of your body, which can change your body’s shape and how you look.

Other Infections and Conditions

Because one of the effects of HIV over time is that it kills immune cells, it can become harder for your body to fight serious infections.

These “opportunistic infections” can be life-threatening, since they can damage your immune system when it is already weak.

In the long-term, being HIV-positive can also put you at greater risk for getting some types of cancers.

Boosting Long-term Outlook

Since HIV can quickly cause damage to your immune system and can lead to AIDS, getting timely treatment can help improve life expectancy.

Anti-HIV drugs can help to slow damage caused by the virus. There are numerous classes of anti-HIV drugs that can help to block HIV. Your doctor may recommend that you combine multiple drugs from these different classes: 

  • non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors
  • nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors
  • protease inhibitors
  • fusion inhibitors
  • integrase inhibitors

Down the Road

Many government agencies are leading the charge to develop new vaccines through research. They also continue to sponsor new clinical trials and research in the field of HIV and AIDS.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to develop and improve best practices and guidelines for HIV treatment. The agency also prioritizes the creation and publication of strategies to teach people about preventing the spread of HIV.

No Death Sentence

Timely treatment is the key to a good prognosis for people who have HIV. Those who remain untreated will experience complications from the virus that will lead, over time, to illness and death.

But anti-HIV therapy can help most people stay healthy and experience long lives. Those with the best prognosis are people who begin treatment before HIV has damaged their immune system.

In the majority of cases, the disease can be manageable over the long-term even though it’s chronic. 

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