By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center
It’s that time of year again-- temperatures are dropping, winter coats become a necessity, and colds seem to be spreading at lightspeed! But it also means that the holidays are approaching and will be here before you know it.
When you’re living with HIV, the holidays can get a bit tricky. You have to worry about things most people overlook, like keeping track of your medicine while traveling. Taking care of your emotional needs is just as important as taking care of your physical needs. We’re going to talk about what you can do to stay both safe and healthy this holiday season.
Don’t go on a “drug holiday”
First, we need to talk about what a drug holiday is. It’s basically what it sounds like, going off your HIV meds without your doctor’s recommendation. A study found that three in five people living with HIV take their medicine 90 percent of the time. That means a lot of people have either stopped taking their drugs or aren’t taking them correctly. HIV-related fatigue and depression are two common reasons people go off their meds.
It’s never a good idea to not take your meds every day, exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Your meds keep you healthy and help you become undetectable. Not taking your meds correctly can lead to dangerous consequences.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is more common in the winter because of the smaller number of daylight hours. It is a type of depression that usually hits in the fall and gets worse throughout the winter. People living with HIV are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than those without HIV, which is why it’s so important to be aware of SAD.
Symptoms of chronic illness can sometimes get worse the colder it gets. The cold can make chronic pain worse and bring out feelings of isolation, while the holidays can be a sad time of year for some HIV-positive people.
So, what are the symptoms of SAD? Here are a few:
- Feeling helpless and hopeless
- Losing interest in your favorite activities
- Having a lot less energy
- Sleeping too much (or trouble falling asleep)
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Having problems concentrating
- Suicidal thoughts
Some things can make SAD easier for you. Seeing a therapist, especially combined with antidepressants, is helpful. Getting outdoors into natural light every day is great, but if it’s cold and cloudy, we realize that’s a challenge. When the weather is rough, a SAD lamp (we like to call it a “happy light” 😉) isn’t too expensive, and there’s evidence that sitting near it for 20 to 60 minutes each day can help.
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Going home for the holidays is no reason to neglect your health! It will just make life harder for you in the long run, so it’s important to stay on top of it. Make sure you take your meds correctly and find time to exercise. Eating healthy can be difficult over the holidays, but it’s important. Try to eat as healthy as possible. If you have to travel, before you leave, double-check that you have enough medicine for however long you’ll be gone. If not, it’s time to let the pharmacy know!
A lot of people get sick in the winter, so there’s a good chance you’ll be around people who may expose you to their germs. Make sure you have your flu shot before you leave. Don’t forget to take care of yourself while you’re away from home!
Like we said before, taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Carve out some time for meditation and relaxation. Don’t forget to practice self-care and make sure not to overdo it. This goes double if you’re visiting unsupportive relatives over the holidays!
Spend time with those you love
It’s the holidays, and you want to have fun! You’ll have a lot more fun if you’re feeling well, right? Keep in mind that it’s up to you who you spend your holidays with. If you don’t feel comfortable or safe at someone’s house for any reason, don’t go! Make alternative plans with the friends and family who have always been in your corner and love you without strings.