HIV Treatment: All You Need to Know

HIV infection can be treated with very positive results. Discover the options available and solve some common questions about therapy.
HIV Treatment: All You Need to Know

Last update: 14 August, 2021

HIV is an infection which, at present, has no cure. However, there is now an effective and safe method to control the progression of the disease and reduce the chances of infection. HIV treatment should start as soon as possible, as this will considerably affect the prognosis of the disease.

Complete adherence to treatment options can extend people’s lives, prevent them from developing AIDS, counteract the epidemic, and reduce the symptoms and complications that occur. It’s an irreplaceable method that controls the virus in about six months, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have pointed out.

HIV treatment with antiretrovirals

HIV treatment includes the use of antiretrovirals
The regular use of antiretrovirals has dramatically decreased HIV-associated mortality. For this reason, it’s a fundamental part of the treatment of the disease.

According to the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), HIV treatment consists of antiretroviral therapy. Also known as ART, it’s the only method currently available to deal with the evolution of the infection.

Studies in this regard support the use of a combination therapy of three drugs, preferably of two different groups.

Following the NHI’s Office of AIDS Research, there are six classes of drugs that can fight the virus in different ways:

  1. Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  2. Nucleoside transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
  3. Inhibitors of integrase chain transfer (INSTIs)
  4. CCR5 receptor antagonists
  5. Fusion inhibitors
  6. Protease inhibitors (PIs)

The specialist will use a combination of these drugs in a therapy that you must maintain permanently. It’s very important that you adhere to the frequency and schedule indicated by the doctor. If you don’t, then, as Stanford Health Care points out, you could develop resistance to the drugs. This happens when you aren’t following HIV treatment correctly.

Although each drug has a different action, we can summarize its operation as follows: they prevent the virus from making copies of itself and they allow your body to produce more CD4 + cells.

The number of copies of HIV in your body is called the viral load. The lower the viral load, the fewer the complications. In essence, the goal of all treatment is to reduce viral load to levels undetectable by diagnostic tests.

Side effects of HIV treatment

Although not all patients experience them, in some settings HIV treatment can cause side effects. The most common are the following:

  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A feeling of dryness in the mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Eruptions

In general, these only manifest themselves with a mild intensity, although if you develop chronic episodes you can opt for the use of medications to control them. If they persist, you can talk to the specialist to consider changing the drugs you use in the main therapy.

Psychological support as HIV therapy

HIV treatment includes psychological support
Mental therapy can become an essential part of support for affected people, especially in the first months after diagnosis.

Until a couple of years ago, psychological therapy wasn’t part of the main treatment for HIV. Today researchers agree that psychosocial support not only helps to consolidate adherence to drugs, but also prevents sensations that often develop after diagnosis, such as depression, anxiety, anguish, and others.

For this reason, you should also consider seeking psychosocial support to cope with the illness. You can do this in two ways.

First, attend individual therapy sessions, with your partner or family member. Second, seek support groups to share experiences, feelings, perceptions, and prognoses with other diagnosed patients.

Of course, this should be done only when you feel ready for it. You may prefer individual therapy with your specialist first, in part to assimilate the diagnosis and its implications.

Over time, you can open up more and start sharing with other people who are or have been in the same assimilation stage that you’re in. Therefore, don’t neglect emotional therapy.

Frequently asked questions and answers about HIV treatment

To answer the questions that you haven’t found an answer to in the previous sections, we’ve compiled another selection here.

When should you start HIV treatment?

As soon as possible. There’s a consensus among researchers that if treatment is started during the initial stages of infection, the prognoses are significantly higher. Partly for this reason, early diagnosis is encouraged in risk groups.

What lifestyle changes should I make to supplement therapy?

Since your body is more sensitive to infection, you should initiate a lifestyle change to a healthier one. Quitting smoking or drinking excessively, exercising properly, implementing a healthy diet, avoiding the use of recreational drugs, and reducing stress levels are all part of the main therapy. Similarly, you should get vaccinated for endemic diseases in your region.

Can I give my partner HIV if I adhere to treatment?

If you adhere to antiretroviral treatment, your viral load will decrease. Specialists will determine this because, at the time of doing the relevant tests, they won’t be able to detect traces of the virus. This doesn’t mean that you have been cured, only that the percentage of copies of the virus is so low that it can’t be detected by diagnostic tests.

As the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tells us, when this happens you can’t transmit the virus to your partner through sex. To do this, you must obtain undetectable tests of lasting load, which means that no traces of the infection have been detected in six continuous months (again, it’s there, but in low concentrations).

Despite this, you should use condoms and other contraceptive methods during sexual relations. Remember that you can still get other STDs.

What do I do if my treatment doesn’t work?

If treatment fails to lower your viral load, you’re likely to be resistant to the drugs. This isn’t so uncommon and, best of all, there’s a solution. The specialist will choose to use another combination of drugs and will start a new type of therapy.

What happens if I forget to take my medication?

It’s very important that you adhere to HIV treatment at the frequency suggested by the specialist. If you maintain an intermittent intake, the viral load will increase again, thus increasing the chances of spreading the virus and developing other complications. Don’t overlook it, you risk developing drug resistance, developing AIDS, and infecting your partner.

  • Cihlar, T., & Fordyce, M. Current status and prospects of HIV treatment. Current opinion in virology. 2016; 18: 50-56.
  • Gonzalez, J. S., Penedo, F. J., Antoni, M. H., Durán, R. E., McPherson-Baker, S., Ironson, G., … & Schneiderman, N. Social support, positive states of mind, and HIV treatment adherence in men and women living with HIV/AIDS. Health Psychology. 2004; 23(4): 413.
  • HIV/AIDS treatment and care: clinical protocols for the WHO European Region. World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe. 2007.
  • Rathbun, R. C., Lockhart, S. M., & Stephens, J. R. Current HIV treatment guidelines-an overview. Current pharmaceutical design. 2006; 12(9): 1045-1063.

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