HIV treatment today is worlds away from what it was even just a few years ago. Groundbreaking newer medications -- as well as older, proven medications -- are taken in combination, usually just once or twice daily, with few-to-no side effects. A number of HIV treatments on the market even contain several medications -- an entire day's regimen of HIV meds -- in just one pill, taken once a day.
Nonetheless, choosing HIV medications and thinking about starting treatment are big decisions. People who have just recently become HIV positive and are not on treatment may go 10 years or more without a single symptom. However, studies have now shown us that untreated HIV can slowly damage a person's body, even if their immune system is strong.
That's why the guidelines for HIV treatment in the U.S. and in other parts of the world recommend HIV treatment for all people living with HIV, even those with healthy immune systems. But people lead complicated lives and getting started on HIV treatment isn't equally easy for everyone. There is a lot to consider and discuss with your health care provider about starting HIV medications.
My first week was very uncomfortable. ... I found myself coping with my status once again as I did seven years ago. Fortunately, I have friends and family that have acted continually as my personal support system. I know as an advocate/activist for HIV/AIDS that I need to be in care; I need to be able to be healthy to continue to advocate for folks infected and affected by this epidemic. So if it means I need to grab a few glasses of water and take a pill to live another day, then I most certainly will.
-- Marco Benjamin, diagnosed in 2008
When you first visit an HIV care provider, they will take at least two blood tests:
- A viral load test to see how much HIV is in your bloodstream.
- A T-cell test, also known as a CD4 count, which tests how strong your immune system is.
Based on both your T-cell test and viral load test results, you and your provider will have a clearer picture of how HIV has progressed in your body.
When it comes to taking HIV medications, it's important to think about the question: "Is now the right time in your life to start?" Talk with a knowledgeable HIV care provider to ensure that, when you do start taking meds, it's for the right reasons, and you're ready to commit to taking your doses regularly as directed.
Be kind to yourself; give yourself a reward for each week you take all your meds on time. Remember that you are a unique person, but those feelings you have are not so unique. We all go through it when we start meds, so talk to people who have HIV and have taken meds. Many of them will tell you that it isn't nearly as bad as it used to be.
-- Brenda Chambers, diagnosed in 2003
Once you decide to start treatment, the question becomes "What HIV meds should you take?" With more than 30 meds and numerous combinations to choose from, the options can seem overwhelming. But there are established guidelines and blood tests (such as drug resistance testing) that can help you and your health care provider determine the best choice for you.
Learn the basics about starting HIV treatment, and check out even more resources below:
- Advice on Starting HIV Treatment From People Who've Been There
- Good Communication Strategies to Make HIV Care Click
- Who's Who on Your HIV Care Team?
- Frequently Asked Questions About When to Start HIV Treatment
- Keeping Up With Your HIV Meds
- Is Your HIV Treatment Working? Warning Signs and False Alarms
- HIV Wellness Checklist: Recommended Lab Tests and Vaccines for People With HIV
- Share Your Story -- My First Pill: Starting HIV Treatment for the First Time
- Ask TheBody.com's Expert on Choosing Your Meds, Benjamin Young, M.D., Ph.D., a question in our online forums