Ask the Pharmacist: HIV Q&A with Our Facebook Community

Medically reviewed by Tommy Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP on July 25, 2016Written by Healthline Editorial Team on July 25, 2016
HIV: You asked, we answered

Recently, Healthline held its first Pharmacist Friday live chat on Facebook. If you missed out, be sure to join our Healthline: HIV Awareness Facebook community to stay up-to-date with HIV-related news, articles, events, and more. Until the next time, though, you can check out this roundup of some of the HIV questions our expert received from people like you.

Disclaimer: Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

What are the symptoms of HIV and how quickly do they occur after having sex?

Edwin, John, J, AJ, VH, and TB

A:

Some of the most common symptoms of HIV infection include fever, chills, a rash all over the chest, and night sweats. They also include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue or tiredness, mouth ulcers, and sore throat.

Symptoms can start showing about two to four weeks after you’ve been exposed to HIV, but they may take longer to appear. Symptoms may also appear for a time and then go away, and other people may not experience any symptoms at all. This is one reason why it's important to have an HIV test done every six months if you have risk factors for HIV or think you might have been exposed to the virus.

For more information on this topic, read about the early signs of HIV.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Should I be tested for HIV if I have vaginal warts?

Maybeth

A:

Yes. Genital warts are usually caused by a virus, like human papilloma virus (HPV), or may even be mistaken for the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Both HPV and HSV are considered sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Being diagnosed with an STI is a risk factor for HIV, so getting an HIV test is a good idea if you notice symptoms of an STI.

For more information about this topic, see HIV/AIDS Tests.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Is brown vaginal discharge with itchiness a symptom of HIV?

Lang

A:

HIV does not typically cause brown vaginal discharge in women. In fact, brown vaginal discharge can actually be normal at times, especially if it occurs close to the woman’s menstrual cycle (period). However, if the discharge smells bad or causes itchiness or burning, it might be a sign of an STI. In that case, you should have a healthcare provider evaluate it as soon as possible.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Where can I get tested for HIV? What are options for getting medications (subsidized and otherwise)?

Naven

A:

You can test yourself using over-the-counter rapid tests, and most doctors’ offices should be able to test someone for HIV. There are likely other testing services at Planned Parenthood, community health centers, or STD/STI clinics near you.

For more information, read these Healthline articles about HIV/AIDs tests and the HIV rapid home test.

As for medications, most insurance plans cover ARVs. If there is a copay, drug manufacturers often provide copay cards to help pay those fees. Drug company patient assistance programs (PAPs) can help as well.

Another potential option is a government-funded program called AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). Availability of this program varies from state to state.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

How long does it take to get a positive result on an HIV test?

Bibek

A:

The amount of time it takes to get your results depends on the type of test you took. The most common test for HIV is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA or EIA). It tests for antibodies to HIV. Your body can make antibodies to HIV within a few weeks to six months of exposure, but the average amount of time it takes for them to appear is six to 12 weeks. If the antibody test is positive, then a second test called a Western Blot should be done to confirm the positive or negative diagnosis. Test results are typically available within two to 14 days.

For related information, read about the rapid HIV home test.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

How can I understand my HIV test results?

Jaypee

A:

Depending on the test, the result may show a negative result, require more testing, or confirm a positive diagnosis. For example, if the ELISA/EIA or rapid test is positive for HIV antibodies, that means another test called a Western blot should be done at the doctor's office to confirm HIV diagnosis. If the Western Blot returns positive, then it confirms a positive HIV diagnosis.

If your diagnosis is positive, that opens several follow-up questions. For example, you may consider what a positive HIV diagnosis really means with today's modern medication and ART, if your provider can manage HIV or if they would recommend a referral to a specialist, and what the latest recommendations are to start ART. (The newest recommendations are that everyone who is HIV-infected should start on medications). Lastly, some people like to know if there are additional services or groups that they could look into for additional support.

If the Western blot returns negative, then that means the HIV test is negative and the initial ELISA/EIA or rapid test returned a false positive. This can happen in a small percentage of tests. If your test is negative, some follow-up questions could be how frequently you should get tested and perhaps most importantly, what kind of changes you can make to your lifestyle (if any) to lower your risk of HIV.

To learn more, read this article about the ELISA test.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

What are the side effects of protease inhibitors?

Collins

A:

Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and bloating are the most common side effects of protease inhibitors (PIs). Increases in blood sugar levels, which can lead to diabetes, and changes in cholesterol levels can also occur with these drugs. PIs may also cause fat to move around or redistribute into the belly or upper back. Most of these side effects occur with older PIs (Kaletra, Lexiva, Crixivan, Invirase, Viracept). The newer PIs (Prezista and Reyataz) have fewer side effects.

For more information, read Healthline’s guide to protease inhibitors and side effects.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

How long do the side effects of ARVs (specifically dizziness, loss of appetite, and fatigue) last?

QS and Theresa

A:

Side effects of ARVs could last days to weeks, if you feel side effects at all. Give four to six weeks to adjust to any new medication. Your CD4 T-cell count when starting treatment may impact the length of time you experience a side effect. Depending on your count, it could take your body a little longer to adjust. Having the medications fight the virus initially can make you feel more tired or decrease your appetite. Then one day, like the flip of a light switch, the side effects can disappear.

To learn more about this topic, read about adherence and side effects for antiretroviral drugs.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

What does the side effects of severe neck pain with mild headache, nausea, and stomach pain indicate? (These effects are not accompanied by fever or swollen lymph nodes.)

Abby

A:

Severe neck pain with mild headache, nausea, and stomach pain could be a sign of anything from a viral or bacterial infection, to a pulled muscle, to a more severe illness such as meningitis (an infection in the brain or spinal cord fluid). If you experience these symptoms, you may want to see your doctor to be on the safe side. In the meantime, it could also be good to monitor your temperature for fever and check your lymph nodes for any increase in size, swelling, or pain or tenderness.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Can an infected person spread HIV with a flaky, slow-healing tattoo on their leg?

Courtney

A:

HIV is spread from person to person through bodily fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluid, rectal fluid, and breast milk. It can be transmitted through vaginal or anal sex, sharing injection equipment or needles, breastfeeding, and other rare means. I would anticipate minimal to no risk of HIV transmission from a slow-healing tattoo with flaky skin. However, there may be risk involved if there is active bleeding or oozing from the tattooed skin.

For more information, check out HIV transmission facts and myths.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

How can I prevent spreading HIV if I am infected?

Abiodun, Joebert, and Ravj

A:

There are several ways to prevent transmitting HIV to others. The most important is having and keeping an undetectable viral load. This means taking antiretroviral medications (ARVs) as prescribed by your provider and not missing any doses. Other ways to prevent spreading HIV include wearing a condom with every sexual encounter and using clean needles and not sharing needles. Additionally, if you’re an HIV-positive mother, you should not breastfeed.

People who are HIV-negative but in high-risk groups may wish to take the medication Truvada for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as a preventive measure.

For more information, get the facts and learn the myths about transmitting HIV.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

How can I manage severe bloating while taking my HIV medication?

William

A:

Bloating is a side effect of some HIV medications, and it most often occurs with protease inhibitors. Simethicone is an over-the-counter (OTC) medication often used to treat bloating. It has many brand names. You may know it as Gas-X. However, some versions of simethicone contain calcium, aluminum, or magnesium. These ingredients may interact with HIV medications. Please talk with your pharmacist or provider before taking any new medication or supplement, including prescription and OTC drugs. If your bloating persists, contact your healthcare provider to ask about an HIV regimen change.

For more information, learn about other HIV side effects and how to treat them.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

How can I prevent getting infected with HIV if I am in a relationship with someone who has it?

Diane

A:

There are several ways to prevent HIV infection if you’re in a relationship with someone who is HIV-positive. One of the most important ways to prevent transmission is to make sure the HIV-positive person takes their medications every day without missing any doses so they can achieve an undetectable viral load. Another way to be safe and lower the risk of transmission is to use protection consistently and correctly with each sexual act. Lastly, the HIV-negative partner may find it worthwhile to talk to their pharmacist or provider about Truvada for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

For more information on this topic, learn the risks for mixed-status couples.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

What is my risk if I had protected sex with an HIV-infected partner?

Abdul

A:

The risk of acquiring HIV after having protected sex is significantly lower than the risk after having unprotected sex. There are other ways to decrease the risk as well. Some of these ways would be consistently and correctly using protection with each sexual act, making sure the positive partner is taking ART with an undetectable viral load, and taking Truvada for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

The risk of acquiring HIV after kissing an individual who is positive is almost zero. There would need to be gallons of saliva exchanged to maybe infect someone. However, there might be a slightly higher risk if the negative individual has an open wound, sore, or cut in their mouth.

For more on the facts, visit this Healthline article about HIV transmission.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

Can I get married to a person who is negative? And, when the virus cannot be noticed in my blood, what does it mean to me and the side effects of the ART?

Lass

A:

Yes, someone who is HIV-positive can absolutely marry someone who is HIV-negative.

When the virus doesn’t show in a blood sample, that means the viral load (or how many copies of virus were making copies in that sample of blood) was undetectable. Having an undetectable viral load is a great thing, because it means that antiretroviral (ARV) medications are working to stop the virus from making copies. An undetectable viral load also significantly lowers your risk of transmitting the virus to your HIV-negative partner. Still, you should use a condom with every sexual encounter to reduce the risk of transmission.

To learn more, see the HIV risks for mixed-status couples.

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Q:

When and if HIV turns into AIDS, can a person with AIDS live long with treatment just like a person with HIV?

Ameer

A:

If HIV goes untreated or is not well-controlled, it could decrease the CD4 T-cell count to below 200 total. The person may also develop an opportunistic infection. If either of those events happens, then that person has moved from an HIV diagnosis to an AIDS diagnosis.

If that person is not taking ARVs and is not in medical care, there is a very low chance they will survive beyond a year or two. However, if that person adheres to ARV treatment exactly as prescribed by their provider, then there is a good chance their CD4 T-cell levels will improve. In that case, they should still be able to live a long life.

Learn more about this topic in HIV vs. AIDs: What’s the Difference?

Dr. Thomas Chiampas, PharmD, BCPS, AAHIVP (HIV & Infectious Disease)Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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