What Is Antiretroviral Therapy (ART)?
July 23, 2014
Antiretroviral drugs are usually used in combinations of three or more drugs from more than one class. This is called "Combination Therapy." Combination therapy helps prevent drug resistance.
Manufacturers of ARVs keep trying to make their drugs easier to take, and have combined some of them into a single tablet regimen. See Fact Sheet 409 for more information on combination medications.
When HIV multiplies, many of the new copies have mutations: they are slightly different from the original virus. Some mutant viruses keep multiplying even when you are taking an ARV drugs. When this happens, the virus can develop resistance to the drug and ART may stop working. See Fact Sheet 126 for more information.
If only one or two ARV drugs are used, it is easy for the virus to develop resistance. For this reason, using just one or two drugs is not recommended. But if two or three drugs are used, a successful mutant would have to "get around" all of the drugs at the same time. Using combination therapy means that it takes much longer for resistance to develop.
ARVs reduce the "viral load", the amount of virus in your bloodstream, but are not a cure. A blood test measures the viral load. People with undetectable viral loads stay healthier longer.
Some people's viral load is so low that it is "undetectable" by the viral load test. This does not mean that all the virus is gone and it does not mean a person is cured of HIV infection. See Fact Sheet 125 for more information on viral load.
Current US guidelines say that everyone who is infected with HIV should start ARV therapy. See Fact Sheet 404 for more information on treatment guidelines. This is an important decision you should discuss with your health care provider.
ARV drugs are chosen on the basis of treatment guidelines, HIV drug resistance, your health (for example, kidney or liver disease) and lifestyle factors. While ARV regimens are usually well tolerated, each ARV drug can have side effects. Some may be serious. Refer to the fact sheet for each individual drug. Each person is different, and you and your health care provider will have to decide which drugs to use.
Adherence to ARVs is very important for treatment to work. The viral load test is used to see if ARV drugs are working.
New drugs are being studied in all of the existing classes. Researchers are also trying to develop new types of drugs, such as drugs that will block other steps in the HIV life cycle, and drugs that will strengthen the body's immune defenses. See Fact Sheets 470 and 480 for more information on newer classes of drugs.
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