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Side Effects of HIV Drugs

August 2, 2015

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Milder Side Effects

Below is a list of more common, milder effects associated with HIV drugs. Click the available links for more detailed information on the side effects listed.

Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea, or feeling sick to your stomach, is one of the most common side effects of taking HIV drugs. Vomiting, or throwing up, is also very common. Both of these occur when new, unknown substances -- like HIV drugs -- are introduced to our bodies.

The good news is that, when nausea and vomiting occur as side effects of new HIV drugs, they often get better after the first days or weeks of treatment. However, they can still be awfully unpleasant and reduce the quality of your daily life. Nausea and vomiting can get in the way of your taking your HIV drugs regularly or benefitting from the drugs you take (if you throw them up before they are digested). These side effects can also keep you from getting the proper nutrition your body needs.

It is important that you tell your health care provider if nausea is affecting your quality of life, especially your ability to eat and take medications. It is also important to tell your provider if you have vomiting lasting more than a few days, as that may lead to more serious problems.

Because nausea and vomiting are such common side effects with so many of the HIV drugs, switching drugs is often not helpful. Instead, there are some things you can do to manage nausea and vomiting:

  • Eat smaller meals more often. Large amounts of food in the stomach can make nausea worse.
  • Eat bland, rather than spicy foods. Bland foods are easier to digest.
  • Eat room temperature foods. Very cold or very hot foods can make nausea worse.
  • Ginger and peppermint have long been known to ease the stomach. Try ginger ale, ginger tea, or peppermint tea.
  • Breathe slowly -- in through the nose, out through the mouth. Try to avoid strong smells, like perfume, smoke, incense, or food smells.

If these tips do not work, there are prescription medications to prevent nausea and vomiting. For example, there are medications your provider can prescribe that you can take before taking your HIV drugs to decrease the feeling of nausea. These medications can help you be much more successful in taking your HIV drugs. Talk to your health care provider about which of these medications would be best for you.


Diarrhea occurs when you have bowel movements more often than you usually do and/or have very loose, watery stool. Like nausea and vomiting, diarrhea can be unpleasant and reduce the quality of your life. It can also lead to dehydration and malnutrition (not getting enough nutrients from your food).

It is important to tell your health care provider if you have diarrhea for more than a few days so that he or she can find the cause and suggest appropriate treatments.

There are many approaches to treating or managing diarrhea:

  • Dietary changes:

    • Increase fluid intake to avoid dehydration
    • Eat small meals every two to three hours
    • Avoid fatty foods, very sweet or spicy foods, caffeine (found in coffee, chocolate, sodas, and some teas), 'roughage' (lettuce, greens, seeds, corn, bran), raw or undercooked foods
    • Try the BRATT diet: Bananas, Rice (white), Applesauce, Toast (white), and Tea (unsweetened and non-caffeinated)
  • Herbal remedies: Chamomile, ginger, and peppermint teas have calming effects on the gut
  • Supplements, including probiotics, L-glutamine, and calcium carbonate
  • Over-the-counter medications
  • Prescription medications: There are medications your provider can prescribe that you can take with your HIV drugs to prevent diarrhea. These medications can help you be much more successful in taking your HIV drugs.

For more information on managing your diarrhea, please see The Well Project's Diarrhea article.


Some HIV drugs can cause headaches. These headaches usually go away on their own and are not a sign of a serious condition or disease. However, if you experience severe pain, changes to your vision, dizziness, neck stiffness, fever, nausea and/or vomiting, tell your health care provider immediately, as these symptoms can indicate something more serious. Also tell your provider if your headaches are affecting your quality of life or ability to stick to your HIV drug regimen.

If headaches are bothering you, ask your health care provider if over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen sodium) are right for you. You may also consider alternative or complementary therapies to manage headaches.


Rash is a common side effect of many of the HIV drugs, especially the non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) such as Viramune (nevirapine), Sustiva (efavirenz), Intelence (etravirine), and Edurant (rilpivirine). Rashes are more common and more severe in women. It is important to check your skin for changes in color or any unusual bumps, especially after starting a new medication.

In rare situations, a rash is a symptom of a severe, life-threatening skin reaction called Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Call your health care provider immediately if you experience a bad rash or a rash together with any of the following symptoms: fever, lack of energy, general feeling of illness, muscle or joint aches, itchiness of the skin, mouth sores, bloodshot or dry eyes, and blisters, especially those that look like "targets," or "bulls-eyes."

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Side Effect Chart: An Abbreviated, At-a-Glance Guide to HIV Drug Side Effects
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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.


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