Treating HIV

Key points

  • There is no cure for HIV, but HIV treatment can reduce the amount of HIV in your body.
  • There are two types of HIV treatment: pills and shots.
  • Most people can get HIV under control within six months.
  • HIV treatment prevents transmission to others and helps you stay healthy.
Patient talking to provider.


HIV treatment (antiretroviral therapy or ART) involves taking medicine prescribed by a health care provider. When taken as prescribed, HIV medicine can make the amount of virus in your body (viral load) so low that a test can't detect it (undetectable viral load).

Getting and keeping an undetectable viral load (or staying virally suppressed) is the best thing you can do to stay healthy. If you have an undetectable viral load, you will not transmit HIV through sex.
Having an undetectable viral load also prevents transmission to others.

Start HIV treatment as soon as possible after diagnosis‎

All people with HIV should take HIV treatment, no matter how long they've had HIV or how healthy they are. If you delay treatment, HIV will continue to harm your immune system and increase your chances of transmitting HIV to others, getting sick, and developing AIDS.

Treatment types

There are two types of HIV treatment: pills and shots.

Pills are recommended for people just starting HIV treatment. There are many FDA-approved single pill and combination medicines available.

HIV treatment shots are long-acting injections given once a month or once every other month, depending on your treatment plan.

Shots may be right for you if you are an adult with HIV who

  • has had an undetectable viral load (or has achieved viral suppression) for at least three months,
  • has no history of treatment failure, and
  • has no known allergy to the medicines in the shot.

You'll need to visit your provider regularly to receive your shots. Tell your health care provider as soon as possible if you've missed or plan to miss an appointment for your shot.

How to get treatment

Find an HIV health care provider

A health care team that is knowledgeable about HIV care will help you manage your care and treatment. Your primary HIV care provider should lead your health care team. They will

  • Determine which HIV medicine is best for you
  • Prescribe HIV medicine
  • Monitor your progress and help you manage your health
  • Refer you to other HIV providers who can address your needs

Your care team may include other providers who are experts in HIV care like nurses, mental health providers, pharmacists, nutritionists, and dentists. Social service providers like social workers, case managers, substance use specialists, and patient navigators may help you find support services.

You can also use the locator below to find a local health center or a Ryan White HIV/AIDS provider who can help you access medical care, medications, and essential support services.

Take your HIV medicine as prescribed

  • This will help keep your viral load low and your CD4 count high.
  • Take your HIV medicine exactly how your health care provider tells you to—at specific times of the day, with or without certain kinds of food.
  • Talk to your health care provider or pharmacist if you have questions about when or how to take your medicine, or if you are experiencing any side effects.

Keep your medical appointments

  • Use a calendar to mark your appointments.
  • Set reminders on your phone.
  • Keep your appointment card in a place where you will see it.
  • Ask a family member or friend to help you remember your appointments.

Know what to expect during a medical appointment

During your appointment, your health care provider may ask questions and conduct routine medical exams to see how HIV is affecting your body. They may

  • Take a blood sample to check your viral load
  • Ask about your health history
  • Look for other kinds of infections or health problems, or give you immunizations
  • Discuss, prescribe, and monitor your HIV medicine
  • Discuss ways to help you follow your HIV treatment plan
  • Help identify other support you may need
  • Ask about your sexual or injection partners and discuss ways to prevent them from getting HIV

Your health care provider will use blood tests to monitor your HIV. These tests help your health care provider make decisions about changes to your treatment:

CD4 count

  • Your CD4 count is the number of CD4 cells you have in your blood.
  • CD4 cells help your body fight infections.
  • HIV attacks and lowers the number of CD4 cells in your blood.
  • This makes it difficult for your body to fight infections.
  • Your health care provider will check your CD4 count every 3 to 6 months.

Viral load test

  • This test looks at the amount of HIV in your blood.
  • When your viral load is high, you have more HIV in your body. This may mean your immune system is having difficulty fighting the virus or that your HIV medicine isn't working well.
  • You should have a viral load test
    • every 4 to 6 months,
    • before you take a new HIV medicine, and
    • around 2 to 8 weeks after starting or changing medicine.

Benefits of treatment

HIV treatment reduces the amount of HIV in the blood (viral load)

  • If your viral load goes down after starting HIV treatment, that means treatment is working. Continue taking your HIV treatment as prescribed.
  • If you miss your HIV treatment, even now and then, HIV can multiply rapidly in your body.
  • This could weaken your immune system, and you could become sick.

HIV treatment prevents transmission to others

  • If you have an undetectable viral load, you will not transmit HIV through sex. This is also known as Undetectable = Untransmittable.
  • Having an undetectable viral load likely reduces the risk of HIV transmission through sharing needles, syringes, or other injection equipment (for example, cookers), but we don't know by how much.
  • Having an undetectable viral load also prevents transmission through pregnancy, labor, and delivery.

Taking HIV treatment as prescribed helps prevent drug resistance

  • Drug resistance develops when people with HIV miss their pills or shots.
  • The virus can change (mutate) and may limit your options for successful HIV treatment.
  • Drug-resistant strains of HIV can be transmitted to others.

Treatment side effects and interactions

Talk to your health care provider if your HIV treatment makes you sick. They may prescribe additional medicines to help manage the side effects or may change your HIV treatment plan.

HIV treatment can cause side effects in some people: temporary pain at the injection site, rash, headache or dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Talk to your health care provider if your HIV treatment makes you sick.

HIV treatment and birth control

You can use any birth control method {link to Reproductive Health Contraception} to prevent pregnancy. However, some HIV treatment may make hormone-based birth control less effective. Talk to your health care provider about which method of birth control is right for you.

HIV treatment and hormone therapy

Most HIV treatment is safe to take with gender-affirming or menopausal hormone therapy or testosterone replacement therapy. But some people experience side effects. Talk to your health care provider about taking HIV treatment and hormone therapy at the same time. They can monitor any side effects and help make sure your HIV treatment and hormone therapy stay on track.

Treatment challenges

Talk honestly with your provider if your treatment isn't working or if you have trouble taking your medicine as prescribed. They may change your type of HIV treatment. A change is not unusual because the same HIV treatment does not affect everyone in the same way.

Talk to your health care provider about problems taking your HIV treatment

Side effects like nausea or diarrhea can make it hard to continue HIV treatment. Your health care provider can suggest medicines or other support to help manage most side effects.

Some people find that sticking to their HIV treatment plan becomes harder over time because of changes in their life. Make it a point to talk to your health care provider about challenges with sticking to your treatment plan.

Talk to your health care provider if you miss doses of your HIV treatment

In most cases, you can take your pills as soon as you realize you missed a dose. Then take the next dose at your usually scheduled time (unless your pharmacist or health care provider tells you otherwise).

If you missed an appointment for your shot, talk to your health care provider about receiving your next shot.

Find help for mental health or substance use disorders

How you feel mentally and physically can affect your ability to stick to your HIV treatment plan. Your health care provider, social worker, or case manager can refer you to a mental health provider or local support group.

If substance use is interfering with your ability to stay healthy, visit to find substance use disorder treatment.