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Creating a Friendly Environment for Your HIV Medications
The Effect of Interactions

By Joel L. Zive, R.Ph., Pharm.D. with James Learned

Fall 2005

Creating a Friendly Environment for Your HIV Medications
The article "A PK Primer," describes how our bodies process drugs and our growing understanding of pharmacokinetics. Just as our bodies absorb and process HIV medications (antiretrovirals), they absorb and process other substances as well.

The way that one drug is absorbed, broken down (metabolized), or eliminated from the body can affect the way another drug or other substance is absorbed, metabolized, or eliminated. This is called a drug interaction. Most interactions are harmless, some require adjustments of the dose of one of the drugs to avoid harmful effects, some are dangerous, and a few are beneficial.

Effective HIV treatment requires having enough of each of your antiretrovirals in your system to effectively lower viral load and hopefully increase CD4 counts without causing severe side effects. If a drug (or drugs) that you're taking lowers the levels of an antiretroviral in your system, the effectiveness of your HIV treatment could be severely compromised. Similarly, some drugs can increase the levels of an antiretroviral in your system, which can increase the risk and severity of side effects. It can work the other way around as well -- an antiretroviral can decrease or increase the levels of other drugs you take, possibly decreasing their effectiveness or increasing their side effects.

Interactions that might affect your health -- and your HIV treatment -- can occur between:

The Role of the Liver

Drugs are metabolized -- chemically process them for elimination from the body -- primarily in the liver, although your kidneys also play a role. The liver breaks down different drugs using specific systems of enzymes. Many drugs are broken down by the same enzymes, so this is where interactions usually occur.

If two drugs compete for the same enzymes to break them down, one might be metabolized too quickly, reducing drug levels in your blood and making it less effective. If it's an HIV drug, low drug levels could lead to an increase in viral load and the development of resistance to that drug (and perhaps to others in its class). Another interaction might cause a drug to be metabolized too slowly. You could end up with too high a concentration of the drug in your system because it's being metabolized too slowly. Depending on the drug, this could cause an overdose and even be fatal. If two drugs interact to make one or both drugs ineffective or dangerous, the combination is considered to be contraindicated -- they should not be taken together.

Although the liver is able to break down many drugs at once, there's a limit as to how many drugs can be metabolized within a certain amount of time if the drugs require the same system of enzymes. Think of it as two or more trains approaching a railroad tunnel. Only one train can pass, while the other train (or trains) has to wait. This is something like what can happen in the liver, and drug interactions can be the result.

It might also be useful to think of the liver as a funnel -- or many funnels, with funnels within funnels. The following are possibilities of taking two drugs at once, both competing for the same funnel or enzyme system to be properly metabolized:

The above example involves only two drugs. Some people with HIV take 10 or more different medications each day, for HIV and for other conditions. The more drugs or other substances you take, the more likely it is that drug interactions can occur. Breaking down drugs properly gets trickier if your liver is damaged due to chronic hepatitis B or C, long-term alcohol use, or for any other reason. If you have liver or kidney damage, your provider may need to adjust the dose of some HIV drugs.

FDA-Approved Antiretrovirals for the Treatment of HIV
Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs, nucleoside analogs or nukes):
Ziagen (abacavir)
Videx (didanosine, ddI) -- buffered tablets and
enteric-coated capsules (Videx EC)
Emtriva (emtricitabine)
Epivir (lamivudine, 3TC)
Zerit (stavudine, d4T)
Hivid (zalcitabine, ddC)
Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT)
Nucleotide Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitor
Viread (tenofovir)
Combination formulations:
Combivir (Retrovir & Epivir combined in one pill)
Epzicom (Epivir & Ziagen combined in one pill)
Trizivir (Retrovir, Epivir & Ziagen combined in one pill)
Truvada (Viread & Emtriva combined in one pill)
Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs, non-nucleosides or non-nukes):
Rescriptor (delavirdine)
Sustiva (efavirenz)
Viramune (nevirapine)
Protease Inhibitors
Agenerase (amprenavir)
Reyataz (atazanavir)
Lexiva (fosamprenavir)
Crixivan (indinavir)
Viracept (nelfinavir)
Norvir (ritonavir)
Fortovase*/Invirase (saquinavir)
Aptivus (tipranavir)
Entry Inhibitor
Fuzeon (enfuvirtide)

* Fortovase will no longer be available early in 2006.

Examples of Interactions by HIV Drug Class

The table above lists the drugs approved to treat HIV by class. The drugs in each class have similarities, particularly in how they interfere with HIV reproduction. Most drugs in a class can cause some similar side effects, and some drug interactions are common within each class of antiretrovirals. But there are also significant differences between individual drugs in each class.

To list every possible interaction between HIV medications and other substances would require a book many times the length of this magazine. The following describes examples of specific interactions between HIV medications and other drugs or substances. This is by no means a comprehensive list of interactions.

Nucleoside/tide Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs)

Two NRTIs, combined with a protease inhibitor (PI) or non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NNRTI), make up what is often referred to as the backbone of combination therapy. Generally, the NRTIs work well together, although there are exceptions. Compared to the PIs and NNRTIs, the NRTIs have relatively few drug interactions because of the way our bodies process them. Select examples:

Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs)

The three available NNRTIs have little in common except for the way that they block HIV replication, similar resistance profiles, and some shared side effects, notably rash. Otherwise, the potential side effects and drug interactions of the NNRTIs vary a lot. Of the three, Rescriptor is rarely prescribed. Rescriptor interactions are more like those of the protease inhibitors than those of the other NNRTIs. Select interaction examples:

Protease Inhibitors (PIs)

The PIs block a later stage in the HIV reproduction process than the NRTIs and NNRTIs. To varying degrees, they're associated with certain long-term side effects, including increased blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, and high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. PIs come with a long list of drug interactions -- between each other, with NNRTIs, and with many drugs used to treat other conditions. Select examples:

When a previously unknown, unappreciated or unexpected serious side effect or drug interaction is identified, the company that markets the drug is required to work with the Food and Drug Administration and send out a letter to doctors around the country informing them of the new or expanded information. In December 2004, Bristol-Myers Squibb, the manufacturer of Reyataz, had to do just that based on a study of the interaction between Reyataz and Prilosec. In the study of HIV-negative participants, Reyataz was taken with a light meal, two hours after Prilosec was taken on an empty stomach. Reyataz levels were decreased so much that if the two drugs were taken by people with HIV, Reyataz would be ineffective, increasing the chance of developing resistance. Even increasing the Reyataz dose or combining it with low-dose Norvir didn't help. As a result, the combination of Reyataz and Prilosec is contraindicated, and using any PPI while you're taking Reyataz isn't recommended.

As far as we know, most of the other PIs and the NNRTIs can safely be used with PPIs, but close monitoring of your anti-HIV response is strongly recommended if you're taking a PPI regularly.

Some PPIs, including Prilosec, Nexium (esomeprazole), and Prevacid (lansoprazole) are available over the counter. Be aware that some OTC medications can cause serious interactions just as some prescription drugs can.

Entry Inhibitors

Fuzeon is the only drug approved in this class so far. Only a few Fuzeon interaction studies have been conducted to date -- with Norvir, with Fortovase plus low-dose Norvir, and with rifampin, used to treat TB. No noteworthy interactions occurred in these studies. Because of the way that Fuzeon is administered (by injection) and metabolized, interactions between Fuzeon and other approved antiretrovirals, food, herbs or other drugs are unlikely.

Herbal Products

Creating a Friendly Environment for Your HIV Medications
Many of us assume that if something's natural, it must be safe. That's often true, but herbs, like most substances, are metabolized in the liver. And many herbals use the same enzyme systems in the liver as HIV drugs do, which could result in harmful interactions. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of research about interactions between herbals and HIV drugs. Before taking an herbal product, you might want to talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist. They may have access to information about the product that you don't. But be prepared. Many healthcare providers are unfamiliar with herbal therapies and may dismiss the idea due to their lack of familiarity and a sense of discomfort. But don't give up!

If you choose to take an herbal product, a useful though time-consuming course of action is to try to evaluate the quality of the herbal product or supplement. If you're considering a supplement sold by a particular company, you could search the Internet to find the contact information for companies that manufacture and sell the product, ask the companies how it's made (including the complete contents), and how the quality of their product is assured (quality control). It may be a red flag if the manufacturer doesn't respond to your request, and it's probably a signal to move on.

Personal Empowerment Strategies

Information about drug interactions is constantly updated as new interactions are discovered thanks to further studies and anecdotal (word-of-mouth) reports. You may want to talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist regularly about updated information and ask questions about interactions with the drugs you're taking.

Providers, pharmacists, and researchers may not be familiar with the interactions of a new drug at first. Aptivus, the protease inhibitor approved in June, is a case in point. Like other PIs, it can cause many drug interactions. Some of these interactions are known -- either due to studies that have been conducted or because of our understanding of how it's absorbed, distributed, and metabolized. But there's still much to be learned about potential interactions with Aptivus, and it will take time for further studies to be conducted and completed before we have more complete information.

Many over-the-counter (OTC) products contain drugs that you might not expect. For example, some Alka-Seltzer products contain Tylenol (acetaminophen). If you have a cold and take an Alka-Seltzer cold preparation along with Tylenol or other pain-relievers that contain acetaminophen, you'd have high levels of acetaminophen in your system. The maximum dose of acetaminophen (4 grams a day) is safe for people without liver problems, but high doses can cause serious liver disease and could affect the liver's ability to properly break down your HIV drugs. Be sure to read the list of ingredients listed on the packages of OTC products.

Finally, when you're prescribed a new medication, read all you can about it, including its possible interactions with other substances. A good place to start is the drug's package insert (the papers attached to the bottle the pharmacist uses to dispense your medications). You can read the package insert on the Internet or ask your pharmacist for a copy. The more you're aware of potential drug interactions, the better prepared you'll be to avoid or address them.


This article isn't intended as a description of every potential interaction between antiretrovirals and other substances -- and it definitely isn't. Hopefully, the examples cited give you a better sense of the kinds of interactions that can occur. The resources listed in this issue can help you take a more active role in your health and treatment by learning about interactions that might affect you. If you're going to endure treatment's ups and downs, why not make it work as well as it can for you?

Joel L. Zive, R.Ph., Pharm.D. is vice president of Zive Pharmacy in the Bronx. He lectures nationally and internationally on various pharmacy topics. He is a member of numerous pharmacy organizations and Executive Director of Prescription for Hope (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding developing countries' pharmacy dispensing and drug distribution systems and building dispensing pharmacies in these countries to help people with HIV.

James Learned is guest editor of this issue of Positively Aware. We thank Jerome Ernst, M.D. for his review.

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