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Living With HIV, Living With Treatment: The Capsule Version

Part of A Practical Guide to HIV Drug Treatment for People Living With HIV


In a Capsule

  • HIV is a virus that weakens your body's defences against infections and cancers.
  • There is no cure for HIV infection yet. However, with the right treatment and care, many people with HIV are now living long and well and may live nearly normal lifespans.
  • You can do many things to stay healthy if you are HIV-positive, such as seeing a doctor regularly, eating heathy food, getting enough rest, exercising, starting HIV treatment at the right time and using appropriate complementary therapies.
  • Anti-HIV drugs have to be taken in combination. You and your doctor will choose the best combination for you.
  • Your CD4 count -- a measure of the strength of your body's defence system -- will affect your treatment decisions. If your CD4 count falls very low, your risk of certain infections becomes very high. You can prevent this by starting treatment before your CD4 count falls too low and before you get sick from HIV.
  • Anti-HIV drug treatments need to be taken every day as directed and may cause side effects and other challenges. Most people find they can deal with these challenges.
  • If one combination of anti-HIV drugs does not succeed in controlling HIV or if the side effects or pill-taking schedule are unmanageable, you and your doctor may need to try another combination of drugs.

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus that slowly weakens the immune system -- your body's defence against infections and some cancers. If you have HIV for a long time without treating it, your immune system can become too weak to fight off certain serious -- even fatal -- illnesses. At this time, there is no cure for HIV infection, and there is no vaccine that can reliably protect people from getting the virus. However, there are now dozens of treatments for fighting HIV. When used properly, these treatments can help you stay healthy and well.

Living well with HIV does not begin and end with drug treatment. Taking care of your general well-being -- by eating well, getting plenty of rest and exercising regularly -- can go a long way toward keeping you healthy, and there are countless other ways you may find to better your health. CATIE publishes practical guides on nutrition, herbal therapies and complementary therapies; we hope you'll read these and find them useful. In this guide, we're discussing the biggest weapon against HIV: the drug treatments known as antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Treatments have improved a lot since the "early days" of HIV medications in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New treatments have completely changed the prospects for people with HIV. To be blunt, in all but the rarest cases, HIV infection used to lead to illness and death. But by taking HIV treatment, most people with HIV are now able to control, or "suppress," the virus, strengthen their immune systems and fight off infections. Many experts now predict that with proper treatment and care, most people with HIV should be able to live nearly as long as HIV-negative people.

There are now dozens of anti-HIV drugs, also known as antiretroviral drugs, available in Canada. These drugs have to be taken in combination to fight HIV effectively. Sooner or later, most people with HIV have to tackle two questions: (1) When should I start HIV drug treatment? and (2) Which combination should I take?

The best time to start treatment is before you get sick from HIV and before you are at high risk of getting sick. You and your doctor will keep an eye on your symptoms and your blood tests, especially key numbers like your CD4 count. You should start treatment before your CD4 count falls too low (as we discuss in detail starting in "When to Start").

My advice is: Gather information, become knowledgeable, and know what HIV is, what it does and what's out there in terms of support. The more you know about yourself and the virus, the better you can manage your own health and stand strong and positive ... You don't have to do that alone. Get connected, build a support network and learn how to speak to your doctor.

-- Jane

Deciding which combination of antiretroviral drugs to take may seem complicated, but most people can choose from a few simple and effective "preferred" combinations (see "Choosing a Drug Combination"). It's an individual decision that will likely depend on many factors, including the state of your health, your personal preferences and which treatments you have taken in the past.

Of course, treatment can have its downsides. Antiretroviral drugs can cause side effects and long-term complications, which can range from minor to serious. However, advances in treatment mean that many people are able to choose treatments with fewer side effects.

The success of your treatment depends on continuing to take the drugs exactly as directed every day -- this is called adherence. Many people find they can deal with the side effects and adhere to their recommended pill-taking schedule, especially if they've had time to prepare.

Sometimes, treatment doesn't work: it may not be able to control the HIV in a person's body, or the side effects or number of pills may be too much to bear. Most people are able to find an alternate combination if the first one does not work out. However, second, third or later combinations need to be chosen carefully. We talk more about changing treatment later in the guide (see "Changing Treatment").

This guide is intended to guide you through what we know (and don't know) about HIV treatment. We hope it gives you enough information to make you feel more confident about discussing your treatment decisions with your doctor.


Managing Your Health -- a guide for people living with HIV

The Positive Side -- health and wellness magazine for people living with HIV (

ASO411 -- a listing of AIDS service organizations and other HIV-related services throughout Canada (

These and many other relevant resources can be accessed on CATIE's website (, through the CATIE Ordering Centre or by calling CATIE at 1-800-263-1638.

More From This Resource Center

10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Begin HIV Treatment

Are Your HIV Meds Working? Warning Signs and False Alarms

This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
More on HIV Medications
More on HIV Treatment

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