Top 9 Reasons to Call Your Doctor Immediately
When and why to tell doc what’s up
By Mark Katz, MD
YOU MAY EXPERIENCE many symptoms as an HIV positive person. Most of these do not mean you have a serious medical condition. Sometimes, however, they could indicate an acute and possibly life-threatening medical emergency. Get in touch with your doctor immediately if you experience any of the symptoms listed below:
1 “I can’t keep any food or liquid down.” This could lead to your body not getting enough water — dehydration. Vomiting is a common cause of dehydration, but if you can’t eat for other reasons (such as painful swallowing or severe nausea), you might need treatment with intravenous (IV) fluids.
2 “My stomach hurts so much.” When abdominal pain is beyond the point where you can tolerate it and/or is getting worse, it must be dealt with. If you’re on ddI (Videx), ddC (Hivid) or d4T (Zerit), severe pain in the middle of the abdomen could signify pancreatitis (a life-threatening inflammation of the pancreas gland) or lactic acidosis (a condition where high levels of lactic acid build up in the blood).
3 “I can’t breathe normally / properly.” If you can’t breathe well, you need medical attention — no matter what’s causing it. There are serious HIV-related conditions, such as PCP (Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), other pneumonias, lactic acidosis or abacavir (Ziagen) sensitivity, which could be the cause of abnormal breathing or shortness of breath (dyspnea).
4 “My chest is killing me.” If you have chest pain, a feeling of tightness and shortness of breath that lasts more than a few minutes, you should see your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room. These can be signs of a heart attack.
5 “My vision is going blurry.” Especially if your CD4 cells are low (less than 50), this could be the beginning of cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis. CMV is a serious eye infection that can cause blindness if not treated. An ophthalmologist (eye doctor) should examine you as soon as possible.
6 “I feel like killing myself.” Depression and suicidal tendencies can increase in HIV positive people. This may be even more likely for people taking certain medications, such as interferon (for the treatment of hepatitis C) or the non-nuke efavirenz (Sustiva), because these drugs can have psychological side effects. Depression can be treated! If you feel like you’re losing the battle with the blues, get help. [For more info on depression, see “Lady Sings the Blues,” The Positive Side, spring 2003.]
7 “This is the worst headache of my life.” Most severe headaches in HIV positive people have nothing to do with the HIV. Still, if this headache is worse than any you’ve had before, call your doctor.
8 “I am passing blood in my stool (or vomit).” A small fleck of blood is not necessarily an emergency. This can happen with a condition such as hemorrhoids. But if you go to the toilet and what comes out looks like actual blood, call your doctor.
9 “My mouth is on fire.” If you’ve had a rash, especially when starting a new medication (such as Bactrim), and then develop fever and nausea and notice that the lining of your mouth (mucous membranes) is becoming inflamed and seems to peel off, it could be serious. This condition, known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS), is a major allergic reaction to medications. Although it’s rare, if you don’t treat it, it could be fatal.
Top 9 Reasons to Call CATIE
- Newly diagnosed? We’ll give you the lay of the HIV landscape. Whether you want to learn about the basics of HIV, the immune system, living day to day with the virus, HIV drugs or nutrition — or if you just need to talk to someone about what it means to have HIV — CATIE can show you the ropes.
- We’ll connect you with resources in your own community. CATIE can hook you up with anonymous testing sites, AIDS organizations, clinics and other HIV resources.
- We’ll help you understand HIV treatment. Drug combinations, starting, stopping, switching, drug interactions, resistance, complementary therapies — we’ll go over your options so you can make informed treatment decisions with your doctor.
- We’ll school you on the medical jargon and the alphabet soup of AIDS acronyms — and what they mean for you. CD4 counts, liver enzymes, genotypic testing, co-infections, triglycerides, CMV, STIs, PCP — you name it!
- We’ll help you learn how to manage your health. From eating well to monitoring your blood work, from side effects to supplements, from herpes to hep C, CATIE can dish up info and tips to help you take control of your health.
- We’ll talk to you peer to peer. We know that treatment is more than taking medications and your health is more than CD4 counts and viral load. Living with HIV can affect your self-esteem, relationships and lifestyle. Most of us at CATIE can talk the talk with the voice of experience, helping you put it all into perspective.
- We’ll update you on the latest treatment information. Call us to find out about new drug info, studies, clinical trials, dosing, side effects, availability, expanded access and more.
- We’ll research HIV treatment information for you. Can’t find the facts on a particular topic? Looking for published medical studies? CATIE can help you find what you’re searching for and, where possible, direct you to it on-line or send it to you by mail or fax.
- We’ll dial you in to CATIE’s services. Workshops, publications, treatment news, research library… it’s all at your fingertips, because it’s at ours.
Call CATIE’s treatment information line from anywhere in Canada at 1.800.263.1638 (toll-free) or 416.203.7122 (for collect calls from correctional facilities). Staff is available Monday – Thursday from 10 am to 6 pm EST.