When HIV/AIDS first appeared in the early 1980s, options for treatment were minimal. Today, there are more than 30 antiretroviral drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat HIV infection. When used consistently, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can reduce the amount of virus in the blood and body fluids to very low or undetectable levels (known as viral suppression). As a result, people living with HIV who start ART early, remain on treatment, and achieve and maintain viral suppression can stay healthy and live a near-normal lifespan.
There are different groups, or “classes” of HIV medication. Each class attacks the virus differently at different points in its cycle.
What are the different medications used to treat HIV?
The U.S. government has approved over 30 different medications to fight HIV/AIDS. There are different groups or “classes” of HIV medication. Each class attacks the virus differently at different points in its cycle. When different HIV medications are combined and taken together, this is called Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART), also known as “combination therapy” or “drug cocktails.” This is a highly effective method because combining medications can make the treatment more powerful in the fight against HIV cells.
Like all medications, HIV medications may cause side effects, or uncomfortable drug reactions. Each medication affects each body differently. What works for one person may not work for another and what may be a powerful side effect for one person may not have any effect on someone else. Some side effects may last a long time and some may go away soon after you begin taking medication. Each drug carries its own common side effects. Always discuss your side effects with your medical provider.
Common side effects of antiretroviral drugs include:
Lipodystrophy (losing or gaining body fat)
Bone density loss
You should always know exactly what medications you are taking, how to store them, how to take them (for example, on an empty stomach or with food), and what risks they carry.
Do HIV medications cure HIV?
There is no cure for HIV or AIDS. Treatment helps you manage the virus and prevent it from getting worse, but there are no medications that will make it go away.
What are drug interactions and how do they affect me?
A drug interaction occurs when the effectiveness of your HIV medication is affected by the use of another substance. The use of over-the-counter medications, recreational drugs, or herbal supplements may impact the activity of your HIV medication. For example, St. John’s Wort, an herbal drug that many people use as a mild anti-depressant, creates a destructive drug interaction with certain HIV medications. Significant studies show that St. John’s Wort decreases blood levels, which creates a resistance to the HIV medication so it is less effective in fighting the virus.
Many drugs have similar interactions with HIV medications. Always communicate with your medical provider to find out what you can and cannot mix with your medications in order for them to be effective.
What is treatment adherence and how does it affect me?
“Treatment adherence,” means sticking to your treatment schedule and following your medication instructions. This is important for you because following your regimen will ensure that you have the most successful treatment possible. It sounds easy enough, but many people have a hard time taking the correct dosages at the correct times every day.
What happens if I forget to take my medicine?
It’s only human to forget or miss a dose of your medication now and then, but you should avoid this at all costs. In order to prevent HIV cells from replicating, there must be a certain level of medication in your bloodstream. If you miss doses while medication levels are low, the virus can change its structure, or mutate, and become resistant to one or more of the medications you are taking. This is called “drug resistance,” and it causes your medication to stop working properly. If you forget or miss doses often, figure out why and come up with a solution with your doctor. Your treatment may depend on it.