Although there is currently no cure for HIV, the disease can be controlled with proper medical care. Treatment for HIV involves taking medications that slow the progression of the virus in the body. HIV is a type of virus called a retrovirus, and the combination of medicines used to treat it is called antiretroviral therapy, or ART. ART is usually taken as a combination of three or more medicines.
Before the introduction of ART in the mid-1990s, people with HIV could progress to the last stage of HIV, called AIDS, in a few years. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV and treated before the disease is far advanced can live nearly as long as someone who does not have HIV.
ART reduces the amount of virus, or viral load, in the blood and body fluids. In addition to slowing the damage to the immune system, ART can also reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others.
ART should be started as soon as possible after a person is diagnosed with HIV. Delaying treatment allows the virus to continue to harm the immune system and increases the risk for developing AIDS.
Like most medications, ART can cause side effects, including:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dry mouth
It's important to take HIV medications exactly as instructed by a healthcare provider. Skipping doses, even now and then, can give the HIV a chance to multiply rapidly and weaken the immune system. Even if a person's viral load becomes undetectable after starting ART, it's extremely important to continue with treatment.