Treating HIV has come a long way. Nowadays it is entirely possible to live a long and healthy life while HIV-positive, thanks to advances in medicines. While the medicines do not kill or cure the virus, it does successfully slow its progression in your body.
Some newly infected people can live a number of years without a single symptom, whereas others may start to feel ill sooner. This is why there is no one treatment plan that fits all. The decision to start treatment is yours to make, in conjunction with your doctor’s advice, and will depend on when you were infected, how well your immune system is working (your CD4 count) and the amount of HIV virus in your body (your viral load).
Antiretroviral treatment consists of medicines that slow down the HIV virus (reduce the viral load).
There are several classes or lines of antiretroviral drugs that attack HIV in different ways. The big breakthrough in HIV treatment came from not relying on a single class of drugs, but to combine them to counter drug resistance from developing. That usually means taking more than one pill at a time, although some drugs have been combined into a single pill to make it easier for people to take.
As of year-end 2011, there were more than 8 million people worldwide on antiretroviral treatment (source: UNAIDS).
For the HIV medicines to work well, they must be taken exactly as prescribed. There is not much room for error - for example, forgetting to take one single dosage may affect the effectiveness of the medicine. Therefore, it is important to take into account the patient’s lifestyle when choosing which medication to start – if, for example, the person travels across time zones extensively, or switches from day shifts to night shifts, it can affect when the medicines can be conveniently taken. The easier it is to adhere to the prescription, the more successful the treatment may be.
HIV medicines, like all medicines, may trigger side effects. These side effects vary in severity from mild to dangerous. It is important to tell your doctor if you experience any side effects as it may mean that the treatment you are taking may not be right for you. Keep in mind that this may be hard to diagnose, as some symptoms of the side effects may be symptoms of an underlying illness. For a list of potential side effects by medication, please refer to information on the websites:
There are also many interactions between HIV medicines and other medications. Therefore it is extremely important that you always tell a health provider which medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter medications and supplements.