What is Antiretroviral Therapy?

Nearly 37 million people worldwide are living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), including more than one million in the U.S. Though there is no cure, there are many treatments that allow those with HIV to live long, active lives. One option is antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Our immune systems are designed to clear out viruses, but this isn’t the case for someone who is HIV-positive. Their immune system doesn’t work as efficiently as it should, making them more susceptible to illness. Over time, the person can become so immunocompromised that they develop acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

HIV is a retrovirus, so it requires treatment through antiretroviral drugs. There are more than two dozen available, and research shows that a combination of drugs is the best way to control HIV because each one fights the virus in a different way.

When to Begin ART Treatment

ART is recommended for everyone with HIV because it helps people live longer, healthier lives and reduces the risk of HIV transmission. The Department of Health and Human Services says you should begin ART as soon as possible after diagnosis. There are certain conditions where it’s especially important to start ART right away, such as:

  • Pregnancy – ART protects a pregnant woman’s health, and reduces the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
  • AIDS – An AIDS diagnosis is based on a CD4 count less than 200 cells/mm3 or the presence of an AIDS-defining condition, such as cancers or infections that are life-threatening in people with HIV.
  • Certain HIV-related illnesses and coinfections – Opportunistic infections (OIs) develop more often and are more severe in people with weakened immune systems. Coinfections are when a person has two or more infections at the same time, such as hepatitis B and HIV.
  • Recent HIV infection – During the six-month period after HIV infection, the viral load is very high, which can damage the immune system and increase the risk of transmission.

Medicines in an HIV Regimen

There are many ART medications available. They are grouped into six drug classes based on how each one interferes with the HIV life cycle:

  • Fusion and entry inhibitors
  • Integrase strand transfer inhibitors (INSTIs)
  • Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  • Pharmacokinetic enhancers
  • Protease inhibitors (PIs)

Initial treatment with ART will usually include three HIV medicines from at least two different drug classes. Your doctor will decide which to prescribe based on any other medical conditions you have, possible side effects, how well your immune system is working and potential drug interactions.

Side Effects

Side effects vary depending on the medicine and the person taking it. Two people taking the same HIV medications can have vastly different side effects. Some of the most common short-term side effects include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Sometimes side effects that may not seem serious, such as fatigue or swelling, can be signs of a life-threatening condition requiring immediate medical attention. There’s also the possibility of long-term side effects, like diabetes or heart disease, that don’t appear for months or years after starting a medicine.

If you are taking HIV medications and experience any side effects, do not cut down on or stop taking the medicine unless your doctor tells you to. Stopping ART allows HIV to multiply and damage your immune system. Your healthcare provider can offer you suggestions on how to deal with your side effects, or they may recommend changing to a different medicine.

Comprehensive HIV Treatment in Southeast Texas

If you’ve been diagnosed with HIV, you need a dedicated team of medical professionals who will begin prompt treatment with ART to help keep your symptoms at bay and stop the spread of the virus.

St. Hope Foundation offers premier medical treatment for patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. You’ll work with an HIV specialist, licensed nurses and a medical case manager who will coordinate your care efficiently. We provide all our HIV patients with exceptional care through:

  • Access to new therapies
  • ART prescription
  • Comprehensive labs and diagnostics
  • Counseling
  • Texas ADAP enrollment
  • And more!

We also offer an array of preventative services, from vision screenings to well-woman checkups. Call 713.778.1300 to schedule your appointment today.