There is no cure for HIV, but antiretroviral drugs can slow the progression of HIV and control the virus, improving quality and length of life. A person with HIV who goes on treatment and has good health care can live into their 70s. Learning how HIV medications works can help you figure out if you’re ready to start treatment. Until you do, try eating well, getting lots of rest, and reducing stress to help your body.

How does HIV treatment work?

HIV invades healthy cells in the immune system, makes copies of itself, and then sends the copies out to infect more healthy cells. Antiretroviral drugs can interrupt the replication of HIV at different steps of the process. Using a combination of drugs helps control the virus longer than one drug can, because HIV can develop resistance to the effects of medication. If HIV cannot infect new cells and make copies of itself, your viral load will decrease and your immune system will become stronger.

When you start on treatment, your doctor will tell you the ideal schedule for taking your pills to keep the level of medication in your body consistent. If you have an unpredictable schedule or imagine challenges, tell your doctor so they can figure out the best medications for you. If you don’t take your medication on a regular schedule, HIV can become resistant and your options for treatment can become limited.

What are some of the side effects?

Antiretroviral drugs can cause an array of side effects, which usually occur in the first month or two of treatment and lessen over time. Some people will tolerate them more easily than others. When starting on treatment, ask your doctor what to expect and how to manage the side effects. Tell your doctor about anything you experience, as it may be possible to switch medications if you’re having severe side effects. Don’t everstop taking your medications without first talking to your doctor.

Women may react differently than men to some drugs. More men than women take part in research on new drugs, so we don’t know all the reasons why women may respond differently. Ask your doctor if is there is information about how recommended medications might be different for women.

Here are some common side effects:

  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • skin rash (some rashes can be a sign of a serious allergic reaction, so talk to your doctor promptly if they develop)
  • headaches
  • strange dreams
  • loss of appetite
  • weight gain or loss in certain areas of the body (gain in breasts and belly; loss in face, arms, and legs)