Living with HIV

In this section, you’ll find out what it means to live with HIV today.

Getting a positive diagnosis

Learning that you’re living with HIV can be shocking news. In general, this news brings up many questions that may make it hard to listen to what your doctor is telling you. With this in mind, don’t hesitate to tell your doctor you need a little time to digest the news before you make any decisions.

In 1996, the arrival of effective medications turned HIV infection from a deadly illness into a chronic one. As such, living with HIV is no longer a death sentence. Quite the opposite; when you take effective treatment, you can live a long and healthy life.

Starting treatment for HIV

Currently, it’s recommended that you start HIV treatment as soon as possible after you find out about your diagnosis. The treatment makes it possible to:

  • Stay healthy, as it prevents the virus from reproducing and destroying your immune system;
  • Prevent the transmission of the virus to other people.

One thing the treatment can’t do is cure the infection. There is no cure for HIV.

Starting treatment for HIV is a major decision, because you’ll need to take medication for the rest of your life.

HIV treatment

Talking with your doctor will help you choose the most appropriate treatment for you. HIV treatment is generally made up of two or three molecules; it’s called dual therapy or triple therapy. Each molecule acts in a different way on HIV to prevent it from multiplying.

The most recent medications can be taken in a single pill once a day. In the near future, you will be able to choose between an oral medication that you take every day or a monthly injection treatment.

Side effects

Generally, HIV medications are well tolerated. Once treatment has begun, you may feel side effects while your body gets used to the medication. These side effects may include:

  • Gastric problems: nausea, diarrhea;
  • Sleep problems: drowsiness or wakefulness;
  • Fatigue;
  • Headaches.

These effects usually disappear after a few weeks. Take note of them and talk with your doctor about them at your next appointment. For instance, you may want to record:

  • Frequency: Do you feel them every day? Every week?;
  • Duration;
  • Severity, on a scale of 1 to 10;
  • The way they affect your quality of life.

How to take your medication

For the treatment to be effective, you need to take your medication every day at the same time in the case of oral medication (in pill form). If you have more than one pill to take, it’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions. The treatment’s effectiveness depends on the level of medication in your body. If the level is too low, the HIV won’t be blocked from multiplying. If you’re getting treatment by injection, it’s important to respect the timing of your injections.

Remembering to take your medication can be challenging. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Set an alarm on your telephone.
  • Use a pill box.
  • Include your medication in an established habit in your routine, for example eating breakfast.
  • Keep pills in various places: at home, in your backpack, in your suitcase if you travel.
  • If you travel, bring extra pills just in case.

You can also consult with a worker to help you make taking your medication part of your routine.

Viral load

When HIV medication is taken as prescribed, it drastically reduces the virus’s multiplication. To find out whether the treatment is effective, the doctor will measure the quantity of virus in the blood.

This measure is called viral load. The more effective the treatment is, the lower the viral load will be. When the viral load is very low, we call it undetectable.

Undetectable = Untransmittable

An undetectable viral load is synonymous with non-transmission of HIV. In other words, HIV is not transmitted when your viral load has been undetectable for at least one year and remains that way.

When you’re living with HIV, you may be afraid of transmitting the virus to your partners. As such, knowing that you can’t transmit when your viral load is undetectable can be very good news. To achieve this, it’s important to take your medication properly to keep your viral load undetectable.

Testing and treatment for other STBBIs

Living healthy also means preserving your sexual health. If you’re sexually active, it’s important to get tested at least once a year to detect other STBBIs. Talk about this with your doctor.

Don't know your HIV status?

  • Getting tested regularly for HIV makes it possible for you to start effective HIV treatment if you become infected.
  • This treatment reduces your viral load.
  • Reducing your viral load is beneficial for staying in good health.
  • As well, an undetectable viral load means you can’t transmit HIV to your sexual partners. However, HIV treatment does not prevent other STBBIs.
  • Knowing your status helps reduce your anxiety, if you’re worried, and to take care of your health.


Criminalization is an important thing to consider if you’re living with HIV.

In Canada, a person living with HIV must disclose their status to a sexual partner before having sex, otherwise they can be reported and criminally prosecuted. However, there should be no prosecution if your viral load:

  • Is low (fewer than 1,500 copies per ml of blood) and you use a condom when having sex.
  • Is lower than 200 copies and laboratory tested every four to six months (meaning two or three times a year).

For more information, visit the criminalization of HIV exposure section on the COCQ-SIDA website (in French only) or visit the website of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

As long as you’re having sex with men, get tested for HIV and other STIs at least once a year.