• People living with HIV may have an overall higher risk for developing infections. This is because of the way HIV destroys white blood cells that help fight infections.
  • While research about COVID-19 is ongoing, people who have HIV may have an increased risk for severe COVID-19 if they’re older, have other conditions, or have uncontrolled HIV infection.
  • One of the best ways to protect against COVID-19 is to take HIV medications as directed.

COVID-19 has raised concerns among people who have preexisting conditions, including those living with HIV.

HIV, especially unmanaged HIV, can raise the risk of developing infections. This is because HIV destroys white blood cells that usually fight off infections.

While research in the area of HIV and COVID-19 is still ongoing, the current data suggests that not all people with HIV will experience severe illness if they contract the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19.

However, risk factors vary greatly between people, especially for those who have coexisting conditions.

It’s equally important to practice COVID-19 safety precautions as it is to stick with HIV treatment.

Read on to learn about the specific risks to consider with HIV and COVID-19.

Untreated HIV increases the risk of opportunistic infections. These are infections that aren’t as common or severe in people without HIV.

Opportunistic infections occur as a result of a weakened immune system. Bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses can cause these infections.

While opportunistic infections include viral infections, it’s not yet clear whether having HIV automatically increases the risk of contracting the new coronavirus or developing severe COVID-19.

So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that severe illness from COVID-19 in people with HIV is more likely in people who are older or have lower CD4 cell counts. Another risk factor is an ineffective HIV treatment regimen.

A 2020 review of reports focusing on COVID-19 among people with HIV also revealed the impact of coexisting conditions in severe illness. Some coexisting conditions people reported include:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • high cholesterol
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Taking HIV medications as directed may help prevent infections and subsequent severe illnesses.

Thus far, limited research has shown that people with HIV who are receiving effective treatment have the same odds of getting sick with COVID-19 as those who don’t have HIV.

On the flip side, researchers believe that people with HIV may have a greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19 if they’re not currently taking antiretroviral therapy.

Another key measure to prevent COVID-19 is vaccination.

In the United States, people with HIV may be considered for phase 1c of COVID-19 vaccination. This includes people 16 to 64 years old who have preexisting conditions that increase their risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

People living with HIV who are immunocompromised fall into this group.

The exact timing and availability of the COVID-19 vaccine varies by state and depends on vaccine distribution. Check your state’s health department website for more information.

The vaccine has been proven safe overall during the clinical trial process. These trials also included people with HIV, though the exact safety data has not yet been reported.

A weakened immune system is more common in people with HIV who aren’t taking antiretroviral therapy. The CDC cautions that such cases could mean a decreased immune response after vaccination. This could lead to an increased risk of becoming ill with COVID-19.

Experts recommend people with HIV talk with their doctor about the COVID-19 vaccine if they’ve experienced severe side effects from vaccines in the past.

Other than taking HIV medications as directed and getting the COVID-19 vaccine when available, there are several other ways to stay healthy and avoid COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
  • Stay within your own “social bubble” and physically distance from others whenever possible.
  • Avoid indoor spaces outside of your home that aren’t ventilated.
  • Wear a mask when in public. Aim to stay 6 feet apart from others who aren’t in your immediate household.
  • Avoid large crowds. Also, avoid spaces where groups of people crowd together, including bars, concerts, and indoor restaurants.
  • Regularly clean and disinfect common surfaces in your home, such as doorknobs, faucets, light switches, and remotes.
  • Reduce stress when you can by keeping in touch with loved ones virtually, getting regular exercise, and taking time for activities you enjoy.
  • Get enough sleep. The recommendation for adults with HIV is a minimum of 8 hours per night.
  • Eat a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to boost your immune system.

If you think you have COVID-19 or have recently been in contact with someone who tested positive, call your doctor right away to get advice for next steps.

Seek emergency medical care if you have severe symptoms, such as:

  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • bluish skin

Developing severe illness or complications from COVID-19 can be life threatening.

HIV weakens the immune system, which can raise the risk of severe infections.

While this may include severe COVID-19, more data is needed to determine exactly how the new coronavirus and COVID-19 affect people with HIV.

The most important thing people can do is protect themselves from contracting the new coronavirus in the first place. This includes taking HIV medications as directed, avoiding people who are sick, and incorporating healthy lifestyle strategies.

Vaccination can further protect against COVID-19 too.