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HIV/AIDS

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How is HIV treated?

How is HIV treated?

There are many treatments that can help people with HIV, and current treatments are very effective and safe. As a result, most people with HIV are living long and healthy lives. Treatment is recommended for everyone with HIV infection, and generally should be started as early as possible.

Medicines slow the growth of the virus or stop it from making copies of itself. Although these drugs don't eliminate the virus from the body, they keep the amount of virus in the blood low. This protects the health of the person with HIV and also can prevent HIV from passing to sex partners.

The amount of virus in the blood is called the viral load, and it can be measured by a test.

There are several types of anti-HIV drugs. Each type attacks the virus in a specific way. It's similar to the way the military plans an attack using the different strengths of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

Pop question: True or false. HIV medicines eliminate virus from the body.

Answer: FALSE. HIV drugs cannot eliminate HIV virus from the body, but they can reduce it to very, very low levels. The main goal of HIV drugs is to reduce viral load as much as possible for as long as possible.

How are the drugs taken?

Most people who are getting treated for HIV take 3 or more drugs. This is called combination therapy or "the cocktail." It also has a longer name: antiretroviral therapy (ART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Combination therapy is the most effective treatment for HIV.

People who are infected with HIV need to work closely with their clinicians to decide which drugs to take. Several coformulations (combination pills containing 2 or more drugs) are available, and for most patients HIV treatment involves taking just 1 or 2 pills per day.

Is it hard to take these drugs?

The HIV medicines that currently are recommended are usually very simple and easy to take. Several drug combinations are available that package 3 separate medicines into only 1 pill, taken once a day, with minimal side effects.

For the great majority of people, HIV medicines are tolerable and effective, and let people with HIV live long and healthy lives. For some people, though, the drugs may be difficult to take every day, and for a small number, they cause serious side effects or don't work well.

Once patients are on medications, they must work with their health care providers to find solutions for side effects and monitor how well the drugs are working.

The good news is that there are many excellent HIV medicines. Finding the right combination of medicines for each person is usually possible--a combination that controls the virus but does not cause side effects.

When should HIV drugs be started?

Evidence from studies shows that starting treatment early after HIV infection (ideally when the immune system is still strong) is most effective at protecting the health of people with HIV, and it helps protect partners from becoming infected. So, treatment should be started as early as possible after HIV is diagnosed.

Do you have to be treated for the rest of your life?

Right now, there is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS. So, once you start treatment, you have to continue to be sure the virus doesn't multiply out of control.

Pop question: True or false. The most effective treatment for HIV is combination therapy.

Answer: TRUE. The most effective treatment for HIV is combination therapy. Different anti-HIV drugs attack the virus in different ways, so combining 3 or more drugs is the best way to fight the virus.