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HIV Treatment

HIV treatment involves taking medicines that slow the progression of the virus in your body. HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus, and the drugs used to treat it are called antiretrovirals (ARV). These drugs are always given in combination with other ARVs; this combination therapy is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). Many ART drugs have been used since the mid-1990s and are the reason why the annual number of deaths related to AIDS has dropped over the past two decades.

Although a cure for HIV does not yet exist, ART can keep you healthy for many years, and greatly reduces your chance of transmitting HIV to your partner(s) if taken consistently and correctly. ART reduces the amount of virus (or viral load) in your blood and body fluids. ART is recommended for all people living with HIV, regardless of how long they’ve had the virus or how healthy they are.

Why Is Treatment Important?

To protect your health, it is important to get on and stay on HIV treatment. HIV treatment is important because it helps your body fight HIV. You may hear the phrase “treatment adherence,” which means staying on your treatment plan. Most people living with HIV who don’t get treatment eventually develop AIDS.

If left untreated, HIV attacks your immune system and can allow different types of life-threatening infections and cancers to develop. If your CD4 cell count falls below a certain level, you are at risk of getting an opportunistic infection. These are infections that don’t normally affect people with healthy immune systems but that can infect people with immune systems weakened by HIV infection. Your health care provider may prescribe medicines to prevent certain infections.

HIV treatment is most likely to be successful when you know what to expect and are committed to taking your medicines exactly as prescribed. Working with your health care provider to develop a treatment plan will help you learn more about HIV, manage it effectively, and make decisions that help you live a longer, healthier life. HIV treatment will also greatly reduce your chance of transmitting HIV to sex partners and injection drug-use if taken consistently and correctly.

When Should I Start Treatment?

Treatment guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that a person living with HIV begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as possible after diagnosis. Starting ART slows the progression of HIV and can keep you healthy for many years.

If you delay treatment, the virus will continue to harm your immune system and put you at higher risk for developing opportunistic infections that can be life threatening.

How Does ART Work?

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the use of HIV medicines to treat HIV infection. There are five different types of HIV medicines. Each medicine helps stop HIV at different points in the virus’ life cycle.

When taken consistently and correctly ART helps:

Follow your treatment plan exactly as your health care provider has prescribed. Medicines should be taken at specific times of the day, with or without certain kinds of food. If you have questions about when and how to take your medicines, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist.

ART is usually taken as a combination of 3 or more drugs to have the greatest chance of lowering the amount of HIV in your body. Ask your health care provider about the availability of multiple drugs combined into 1 pill. Your health care provider and pharmacist will help you find a treatment combination that works best for you. If the HIV medicines you are taking are not working as well as they should, your health care provider may change your prescription. A change is not unusual because the same treatment does not affect everyone in the same way.

Let your health care provider and pharmacist know about any medical conditions you may have and any other medicines you are taking. Medicines you are taking for other health conditions may interact with your HIV treatment. These conversations will help you receive the best treatment possible. Additionally, if you or your partner is pregnant or considering getting pregnant, talk to your health care provider to determine the right type of ART that can greatly reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to your baby.

Does ART Cause Side Effects?

Like most medicines, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can cause side effects. However, not everyone experiences side effects from ART.

Some common side effects of ART that you may experience can include:

Side effects can differ for each person and each type of ART medicine. Some side effects can occur once you start a medicine and may only last a few days or weeks. Other side effects can start later and last longer.

Contact your health care provider or pharmacist immediately if you begin to experience problems or if your treatment makes you sick. Medicines are available to help reduce or eliminate side effects or you can change medicines to find a treatment plan that works for you. Your health care provider may prescribe medicines to help manage the side effects or may decide to change your treatment plan.

What Should I Do If I Miss A Dose?

Taking your HIV medicines exactly the way your health care provider tells you to will help keep your viral load low and your CD4 cell count high. If you skip your medicines, even now and then, you are giving HIV the chance to multiply rapidly. This could weaken your immune system, and you could become sick.

Talk to your health care provider if you miss a dose. In most cases, if you realize you missed a dose, take the medicines as soon as you can, then take the next dose at your usual scheduled time (unless your pharmacist or health care provider has told you something different).

If you find you miss a lot of doses, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist about ways to help you remember your medicines. You and your health care provider may even decide to change your treatment regimen to fit your health care needs and life situation, which may change over time.

Do I Have To Take My HIV Medicines If My Viral Load Is Undetectable?

Yes, antiretroviral therapy (ART) reduces viral load, ideally to an undetectable level. If your viral load goes down after starting ART, then the treatment is working, and you should always take your medicine as prescribed by your health care provider. Even when your viral load is undetectable, HIV can still exist in semen, vaginal and rectal fluids, breast milk, and other parts of your body, so you should continue to take steps to prevent HIV transmission. Taking your HIV medications on schedule will help keep your viral load very low and help you maintain your health. It will also make it more difficult for you to pass HIV on to others.

Why Is It Important For Me To Stick To My Treatment Plan?

Sticking to your HIV treatment provides many benefits. Among them, it:

What Are Some Challenges I Might Expect To Staying On My HIV Treatment?

Staying on an HIV treatment plan can be difficult. That is why it is important to understand some of the challenges you may face and to think through how you might address them before they happen. For example, remembering when to take your medicines can be complicated. Some treatment plans involve taking several pills every day—with or without food—or before or after other medications. Making a schedule of when and how to take your medicines can be helpful. Or ask your health care provider about the availability of multiple drugs combined into one pill.

Other factors can make sticking to your treatment plan difficult:

Your health care provider will help you identify barriers to staying on your plan and ways to address those barriers. Understanding issues that can make staying on your treatment plan difficult will help you and your health care provider select the best treatment for you.

Tell your health care provider right away if you’re having difficulty sticking to your plan. Together you can identify the reasons why you’re skipping medications and make a plan to address those reasons. Joining a support group, or enlisting the support of family and friends, can also help you stick to your treatment plan.  

How Can I Prepare For Sticking To My Treatment Plan Before I Start HIV Treatment?

Preparing to stay on your treatment plan before you start taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the first step to treatment success. Planning ahead will help you follow your treatment plan once you start treatment.

Begin by talking to your health care provider. Make sure you understand why you’re starting HIV treatment and why sticking to your treatment plan is important. Discuss these important details about your treatment plan:

Tell your health care provider if you have any personal issues, such as depression or alcohol or drug use, that can make staying on your treatment plan difficult. If needed, your health care provider can recommend resources to help you address these issues before you start treatment.

What Are Some Tips To Help Me Stay On My Treatment Plan?

Some tips that may help you stick with your treatment plan are:

You can also view stories and testimonials on this website of how people living with HIV are sticking to their treatment plans.