A Beginner’s Guide To Your Blood Work

By: Shane Dickerson, former WNCAP Client.
Reprinted from the Winter 2019 issue of the WNCAP Client Newsletter “RISE ABOVE”

So… you just found out you’re HIV positive? You might be scared or confused – you may even wonder if you’re going to die. Thankfully, due to the tireless determination of activists and the steady march of medical science, we know that HIV is not even close to a death sentence. As long as you get connected to medical care, take your medicine as prescribed, and have your blood tested regularly, there is no reason for HIV to dominate your life. But… what exactly do those numbers you patiently waited for all day actually mean?

This article is certainly no substitute for a conversation with your doctor or nurse. But as a patient, the most important two numbers you should know are your viral load and your CD4 count. Viral load is literally how many copies of the HIV virus are found in a small amount of your blood. This is the number that you want to go down because the higher it is, the greater the chance of having serious health problems.

If your viral load drops below a certain point (anywhere from 20 to 200 copies, depending on the sensitivity of the test) you may become “undetectable.” Once you are undetectable, you can no longer transmit HIV sexually. This relatively recent knowledge is often called “U=U” or “Undetectable Equals Untransmittable”.

The CD4 count is a fancy name for your white blood cells. If you recall your high school biology, white blood cells help fight off unwanted guests in the body – everything from the common cold to Ebola. So, if you’re living with HIV, you want your CD4 count to be higher to assure your body can get rid of intruders.

A healthy immune system normally has a CD4 count ranging from 500 to 1,600 cells per cubic milliliter of blood (cells/mm3), according to HIV.gov, but again, every body is different and you should talk to your doctor. You want your CD4 count to be like Goldilocks: not too high, not too low, but just right. If the numbers are too high, that could indicate an infection somewhere in the body. Too low a number might mean your medication isn’t working properly.

This can all seem very confusing, but trust me – over time it gets easier. Get connected to medical care, take your medication as prescribed, and stay informed, and you will not just be living with HIV – you will be thriving!

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