HIV Treatment

How does HIV treatment work?

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is the use of HIV medicines to treat HIV infection and AIDS. HIV positive people on ART take a mixture of HIV medicines every day but which medications they use can vary depending on how well the body will react to the treatment, this varies for many people.

Unfortunately ART cannot cure HIV, but it will allow the infected person to live a long and healthy/normal life whilst also minimalising passing the virus on to others. For more information on HIV transmission whilst on ART, or otherwise referred to as ‘undetectable’, please visit our guide to what undetectable is and how it can be a benefit to both the infected person and their potential sexual partners here.

HIV attacks and destroys the infection-fighting CD4 cells of the immune system. Loss of CD4 cells makes it hard for the body to fight off infections and certain HIV-related cancers.

HIV medicines prevent HIV from multiplying (making copies of itself), which reduces the amount of HIV in the body. Having less HIV in the body gives the immune system a chance to recover. Even though there is still some HIV in the body, the immune system is strong enough to fight off infections and certain HIV-related cancers.

By reducing the amount of HIV in the body, HIV medicines also reduce the risk of HIV transmission.

When should I start treatment?

It is recommended that you should start ART (antiretroviral therapy) straight away if you have one or more of the following conditions;

  • AIDS
  • Early HIV infection
  • Pregnancy (HIV post-exposure)
  • HIV-related illnesses
  • Coinfections


How do I choose my HIV regimen?

The choice of HIV medicines to incorporate in to a HIV programme or what is also referred to as a HIV regimen depends on the person’s individual needs. After selecting an HIV regimen, individuals with HIV and their health care suppliers contemplate the subsequent factors:
Potential side effects you may experience, some deal with side effects better than others and vice versa, some may not experience any side effects at all, this differs from person to person

  • Non HIV related illnesses which could potentially intervene with your mediation
  • Drug resistance testing (this will identify how effective your HIV regimen will be)
  • Potential interactions between HIV medicines or other medications already being taken for other medical conditions


Side effects

You will find that a lot of medicines for any serious medical conditions can cause either short or long term side effects and unfortunately this includes HIV. However, it is known now that modern HIV medication is a lot easier to take in comparison to some of the earlier HIV medication which was created during the 80’s and 90’s which had a reputation of making a HIV positive person unwell a lot of the time.

Here are some side effect examples of how some HIV medication can affect somebody during the early stages of ART;

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Insomnia
  • Depression


In most cases, if somebody on ART experiences these side effects (if any at all), it is highly likely that these will weaken or go away completely within a couple of weeks.

Long term side effects include;

  • Thinning of the bones
  • Changes in liver and kidney function
  • Increased levels of blood fats and sugars


In some rare cases depending on your HIV regimen, you may develop an allergic reaction. If this happens then visit your local sexual health clinic or Accident and Emergency department which you can find here (UK only)