Self-Care Guide for People With HIV

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on April 15, 2022
6 min read

Along with taking your HIV medication, self-care helps you stay healthy, have a better quality of life, and live longer with HIV.

Self-care means you take good care of yourself with these healthy steps:

  • Eat nutritious foods and stay at a healthy weight.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Manage stress and mental health.
  • Keep up with medical care.
  • Quit unhealthy habits such as smoking and heavy drinking.

Here are some reasons:

HIV weakens your immune system. You pick up infections more easily. Healthy eating and regular exercise make your immune system stronger.

HIV causes chronic inflammation. If you live with HIV for years, inflammation can raise your risk of heart disease (also called cardiovascular disease) and high blood pressure. Self-care with a healthy diet, exercise, stress management, and quitting smoking helps you manage your heart disease or even prevent it.

HIV treatments may work better. You’ll process your HIV medicine better and have fewer side effects if you eat a nutritious diet.

HIV makes you three times more likely to have depression. Self-care helps you:

  • Cope with HIV-related depression
  • Lower stress
  • Manage your mental health

You need a nutritious diet: Eating healthy foods helps you:

  • Keep your immune system strong to prevent infections, which happen more easily with HIV
  • Stay at a healthy weight
  • Get the most from your HIV medications

You may have unhealthy weight loss or weight gain: Some people with HIV lose too much weight because of infections, medication side effects, or depression that lowers their appetite. If you stop taking HIV treatments, you can develop diarrhea and lose a lot of weight. If your diagnosis is recent, your new HIV medications may cause you to gain a lot of weight. Over time, you can become overweight or obese, which increases your risk of heart disease.

You need to improve your bone health: As you live longer with HIV, you’re more likely to lose bone density and develop osteoporosis. Eating foods rich in calcium and vitamin D can help you keep bones strong.

You need to build healthy muscles: People with HIV also can gradually lose muscle mass. Protein helps you maintain healthy muscles with HIV.

Eat fresh fruits and veggies in a variety of colors each day. Choose raw fruit over fruit juice. Canned fruit packed in juice or light syrup is OK, but rinse the fruit before you eat it.

Eat dark green, leafy veggies like spinach, kale, or collard greens often. Greens are rich in the vitamin K that helps build stronger bones.

Eat lean protein. Build your meal around lower-fat poultry or fish or plant-based proteins like beans or tofu. Trim extra fat from meat before you cook it.

Blend a smoothie. Mix low-fat yogurt, milk, or soy milk with fresh fruits and peanut butter or flaxseed in your blender for a nutritious treat.

Lose weight if you need to. Fill up on whole grains such as brown rice, cereal, or oatmeal. Cut back on sugary sodas and cookies for your afternoon pick-me-up. Snack on a banana, baby carrots, or a small serving of peanuts instead (about 2 tablespoons).

Get your appetite back and get rid of nausea. Eat small servings of food every few hours instead of big meals. Snacks like bananas or crackers may be easier to digest. Have a high-calorie protein shake or pudding between meals if you need to gain weight.

Lower inflammation and protect your heart with omega-3 fats if you’ve had HIV for a long time or you’re over 50. Enjoy canned tuna or wild salmon for lunch. For breakfast, sprinkle flaxseed on oatmeal made with soy milk.

Keep your food safe: HIV makes you more likely to get a stomach bug.

  • Wash all fresh fruits and veggies well before you eat them.
  • Don’t eat raw or underdone meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, or seafood.
  • Wash your hands, cutting boards, countertops, and cooking tools before and after you prepare food.

Staying active is healthy for your immune system, muscles, and bones. Exercise improves your appetite and lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress. Regular physical activity can also help you sleep better.

Here are some tips to get more exercise and keep it up:

  • Block time on your calendar for exercise. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity 5 days a week.
  • Do what you enjoy. Walking, cycling, dancing, and swimming are all aerobic exercises that are good for your heart and help you manage your weight.
  • Exercise in 10-minute sessions, three times a day if you are shorton time. Take a 10-minute break to work in the yard, clean the house, or play with your kids.
  • Tone your muscles with resistance or strength training. Take a yoga or resistance band class. Lift handheld weights: Start with dumbbells or soup cans light enough for you to lift 10 times in a row. Do two sets of 10 lifts each. Add more weight or reps as you get stronger.

Whether you’re newly diagnosed or have lived with HIV for years, you may have times when you feel stressed or anxious. If you often have these feelings, they can worsen your health and how well you function in daily life.

If you feel that your stress is hard to manage on your own, tell your family or friends. Talk to your doctor. They may suggest treatments or counseling to support your mental health.

Here are some other tips to help you manage stress with HIV:

Join an HIV support group in your area or online. You’ll make new friends who also live with HIV and have had the same experiences as you. Talk it out!

Exercise! Physical activity helps you manage anxiety and stress. Go for a walk in the park when you feel stressed. Learn tai chi, a gentle, slow exercise that helps you reduce stress. Do your tai chi routine every day.

Work on small tasks you can finish. If you feel overwhelmed by life with HIV, it may feel good to stop, breathe, and see what’s on your to-do list that you can realistically get done. Pull weeds in your yard for an hour. Organize the clothes in your closet. Call an old friend so you can talk instead of text.

Book a massage. Massage can help ease stress.

Meditate. Regular meditation can lower stress, anxiety, and depression. Meditation may even improve your HIV symptoms and lower your blood pressure. If you don’t know how to meditate, check out free online meditation guides. Ask your doctor about meditation, guided thought, and breathing techniques that help you relax at times of extra stress.

Keep up with medical care. You can keep HIV under control and stay healthy if you keep taking your medication and get regular medical care. Only 50% of people with HIV stay in care, but they have better health overall than those who quit going to the doctor or taking their meds.

When you’re diagnosed with HIV, start taking ART as soon as possible. ART (antiretroviral therapy) is the name given to the combo of medications you take for HIV treatment. Take your ART every day at the correct times to lower your viral load and stay healthy.

See your doctor and dentist every 6 months. Your doctor and dentist can check your overall physical, dental, and oral health and look for any early signs of cancer, so you can get treated. Keep up with all recommended screenings for breast, colorectal, or other types of cancer.

Ask your care team about free services if costs or a lack of transport make getting your HIV care difficult. HIV disproportionately affects people of color, especially Black women. People of color are also more likely to face barriers to HIV medical care and miss doctor’s appointments.

Quit unhealthy habits.

  • Unhealthy habits like smoking and heavy drinking worsen your health with HIV.
  • Both smoking and heavy drinking make it more likely that you’ll get infections like pneumonia, or over time, develop chronic illnesses like heart disease or cancer.
  • Heavy drinking can make your mind fuzzy, so you may practice unsafe sex or forget to take your daily HIV meds.
  • Smoking can lower the effectiveness of your HIV treatments.

Kick tobacco for good. Ask your doctor or HIV clinic care team for help to quit smoking. They may suggest counseling or nicotine replacement products to help you fight the urge to light up.

Limit your drinking. Men with HIV should have no more than two drinks per day and women should have only one drink per day. Drink serving sizes are one bottle of beer, one shot of liquor, or a 5-ounce glass of wine.

Get help to get sober. If you think you may have a drinking problem, talk to your doctor. They’ll suggest local treatment programs to help you get sober.