HIV Treatment Overview

HIV treatment involves taking medicines that slow the progression of the virus in your body. HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus, and the drugs used to treat it are called antiretrovirals (ARV). These drugs are always given in combination with other ARVs; this combination therapy is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). Many ART drugs have been used since the mid-1990s and are the reason why the annual number of deaths related to AIDS has dropped over the past two decades.

Although a cure for HIV does not yet exist, ART can keep you healthy for many years, and greatly reduces your chance of transmitting HIV to your partner(s) if taken consistently and correctly. ART reduces the amount of virus (or viral load) in your blood and body fluids. ART is recommended for all people living with HIV, regardless of how long they've had the virus or how healthy they are.

Why Is Treatment Important?

To protect your health, it is important to get on and stay on HIV treatment. HIV treatment is important because it helps your body fight HIV. You may hear the phrase "treatment adherence," which means staying on your treatment plan. Most people living with HIV who don't get treatment eventually develop AIDS.

If left untreated, HIV attacks your immune system and can allow different types of life-threatening infections and cancers to develop. If your CD4 cell count falls below a certain level, you are at risk of getting an opportunistic infection. These are infections that don't normally affect people with healthy immune systems but that can infect people with immune systems weakened by HIV infection. Your health care provider may prescribe medicines to prevent certain infections.

HIV treatment is most likely to be successful when you know what to expect and are committed to taking your medicines exactly as prescribed. Working with your health care provider to develop a treatment plan will help you learn more about HIV, manage it effectively, and make decisions that help you live a longer, healthier life. HIV treatment will also greatly reduce your chance of transmitting HIV to your partner(s) if taken consistently and correctly. Learn more about HIV treatment as prevention.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Begin HIV Treatment

When Should I Start Treatment?

Treatment guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that a person living with HIV begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as possible after diagnosis. Starting ART slows the progression of HIV and can keep you healthy for many years.

If you delay treatment, the virus will continue to harm your immune system and put you at higher risk for developing opportunistic infections that can be life threatening.

Does ART Cause Side Effects?

Like most medicines, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can cause side effects. However, not everyone experiences side effects from ART. The HIV medications used today have fewer side effects, fewer people experience them, and they are less severe than in the past. Side effects can differ for each type of ART medicine and from person to person. Some side effects can occur once you start a medicine and may only last a few days or weeks. Other side effects can start later and last longer. If you experience side effects that are severe or make you want to stop taking your HIV medication, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist before you miss any doses or stop taking the medication. Skipping doses or starting and stopping medication can lead to drug resistance, which can harm your health and limit your future treatment options.

Some side effects of ART that are most commonly reported include:

  • Nausea and vomiting,
  • Diarrhea,
  • Difficulty sleeping,
  • Dry mouth,
  • Headache,
  • Rash,
  • Dizziness,
  • Fatigue, and
  • Pain.

Contact your health care provider or pharmacist immediately if you begin to experience problems or if your treatment makes you sick. If side effects make you want to skip taking your medications sometimes or stop taking them altogether, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist right away to find solutions that work for you. Your health care provider may prescribe medicines to reduce or eliminate side effects or may recommend changing your medication to another type of ART that might work better for you. Learn more about the possible side effects of ART.

Drug Resistance

Drug resistance can be a cause of treatment failure for people living with HIV. As HIV multiplies in the body, the virus sometimes mutates (changes form) and produces variations of itself. Variations of HIV that develop while a person is taking HIV medicines can lead to drug-resistant strains of HIV. With drug resistance, HIV medicines that previously controlled a person's HIV are not effective against new, drug-resistant HIV. In other words, the HIV medicines can't prevent the drug-resistant HIV from multiplying. Drug resistance can cause HIV treatment to fail.

A person can initially be infected with drug-resistant HIV or develop drug-resistant HIV after starting HIV medicines. Drug-resistance testing identifies which, if any, HIV medicines won't be effective against a person's HIV. Drug-resistance testing results help determine which HIV medicines to include in an HIV treatment regimen.

Medication adherence -- taking HIV medicines every day and exactly as prescribed -- reduces the risk of drug resistance.

Read more about Drug Resistance in this fact sheet from AIDSinfo.

[Note from This article was originally published by on May 15, 2017. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]