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HIV Treatment Options and Possible Side Effects

While there’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are effective treatments to fight the infection and enable people with HIV to live a long and healthy life.

HIV treatment involves taking combination of HIV medicines (called an HIV regimen) every day. The combination of drugs used to treat HIV is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART can’t cure HIV but it reduces the amount of HIV in the body. This protects the health of people with HIV and greatly reduce their chance of transmitting HIV to their partners if taken consistently.

People on ART is recommended to combine three drugs from two drug classes to avoid creating drug-resistant strains of HIV. The classes of anti-HIV drugs include:

  1. Integrase inhibitors, which stop a protein in HIV called integrase that HIV uses to insert its genetic material into CD4 T cells. Integrase inhibitors are usually among the first HIV drugs used in people who have recently been infected with HIV because they are effective and have minimal side effects. Examples of these drugs include raltegravir (Isentress), dolutegravir (Tivicay), and elvitegravir (Vitekta).
  2. Entry inhibitors, which prevent the virus from entering the CD4 T cells. Examples of these drugs include enfuvirtide (Fuzeon) and maraviroc (Selzentry).
  3. Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs), which block reverse transcriptase, a protein that HIV needs to reproduce. Examples of these drugs include abacavir (Ziagen), lamivudine/zidovudine (Combivir), lamivudine (Epivir), emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Truvada), and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Viread).
  4. Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs), which also block reverse transcriptase to prevent the virus from replicating itself, but in a different way to NRTIs. Examples of these drugs include efavirenz (Sustiva), etravirine (Intelence) and nevirapine (Viramune).
  5. Protease inhibitors (PIs), which block protease, another protein that HIV needs to make copies of itself. Examples of these drugs include atazanavir (Reyataz), darunavir (Prezista), fosamprenavir (Lexiva) and indinavir (Crixivan).

When Should I Start Treatment?

People with HIV should start antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as possible after diagnosis. If you delay treatment, the virus will continue to damage your immune system and put you at higher risk for developing AIDS, which can be fatal and life threatening.

Follow the treatment plan exactly that have been prescribed for you. Medicines should be taken at specific times of the day, with or without certain kinds of food. If you have questions about when and how to take your medicines, talk to your health care provider or pharmacist.

What are the Side Effects of ART?

Like most medications, ART can cause side effects. However, not everyone experiences the same side effects from ART. The side effects can differ for each type of ART medicine and from person to person.

Some common side effects of ART include:

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

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 stopping medication can lead to drug resistance, which can harm your health and reduce your treatment options.

What is HIV Drug Resistance?

HIV drug resistance occurs when the virus starts to mutate and produce variations of itself in the presence of antiretroviral drugs.

With drug resistance, HIV medicines that previously controlled the person’s HIV are not effective against the 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.

For people infected with HIV, drug resistance can render drugs less effective or even completely ineffective, thus significantly reducing the treatment options.

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