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Starting antiretroviral treatment for HIV

Woman showing HIV tablets

Whether you have recently found out you have HIV, or have known for a while, you may have questions about starting HIV treatment. You may have heard about HIV treatment – also called antiretroviral treatment (ART) – or know someone else who is taking it. Talk to your doctor about any questions you have - the information on this page should help you to think about the questions you might want to ask.

Can HIV be treated?

HIV can be treated. Many people living with HIV start taking treatment and stay healthy as a result. Current treatment for HIV is not a cure for HIV, but it can keep HIV under control.

Antiretroviral treatment works by keeping the level of HIV in your body low (your viral load). This lets your immune system recover and stay strong.

Keeping your viral load low also helps to prevent HIV being passed on.

With good healthcare and treatment, many people with HIV are living just as long as people who don’t have HIV.1

You can continue to have relationships, to work or study, to make plans, to have a family – whatever you would have done before your HIV diagnosis.

When should I start treatment?

It is now recommended that people living with HIV start antiretroviral treatment straight away.2

Without treatment, people living with HIV can become ill because of the damage HIV does to the immune system. The immune system is your body’s way of protecting itself from illnesses caused by germs, bacteria or infections.

Previously, the decision about when to start treatment depended on a CD4 count test, which looks at how many CD4 cells are in a small amount of blood.3

The CD4 cells (also called T-helper cells) are an important part of the immune system because they fight a germ or infection. HIV attacks CD4 cells and reduces the number of them in your body. Without treatment, HIV slowly weakens the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off illness or infection.

Other reasons to start treatment

Antiretroviral treatment also lowers your viral load, which makes it less likely that HIV will be passed on.4 For this reason, it is important that all women with HIV who are pregnant or breastfeeding, take treatment to prevent HIV being passed on to their baby. Anyone living with HIV who is in a relationship with someone who does not have HIV (a mixed-status relationship) should also consider treatment to prevent HIV transmission.

Being emotionally ready to start treatment

Perhaps the most important factor of all is whether you feel ready to start HIV treatment. Current HIV treatment has to be taken every day for the rest of your life. You might feel good about starting HIV treatment, because it is something you can do to stay healthy and strong. But it is also normal to feel worried about it, or to have questions. Give yourself time to prepare for taking HIV treatment every day.

In addition to talking to your doctor, you may find it helpful to talk to someone who has experience of taking HIV treatment. Many clinics have peer mentors, who can offer support and information, or can put you in touch with community organisations and peer support groups.

What is the best HIV treatment to start with?

The drugs used to treat HIV are called antiretroviral drugs. There are several different types and they work in different ways. HIV treatment is made up of three or more antiretroviral drugs taken together. Sometimes, these drugs are combined into one pill.

There are lots of antiretroviral drugs, and they can be combined in different ways. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended a combination of antiretroviral drugs for people starting HIV treatment:

  • TDF (tenofovir)
  • either 3TC (lamivudine) or FTC (emtricitabine)
  • and EFV (efavirenz).3

WHO has also recommended alternative combinations. Your doctor will be able to tell you which drugs are best for you.

What else should I consider?

If you have a choice of drugs, talk to your doctor about which combination might be the best one for you. If you are taking treatment for another health condition, or contraception (family planning), it’s important that your doctor knows about this, as one drug may affect another.5

Most antiretroviral drugs are taken once a day, with or without food. However, some drugs are taken twice a day, or should be taken with food. If this might be something you find difficult, talk to your doctor about your options.

In some countries, the cost of drugs and your insurance cover may be something you have to consider.

All drugs – not just antiretroviral drugs – can cause some side-effects, particularly in the first few days of starting treatment. This is another topic you could discuss with your doctor, as it might also affect your choice of drugs. Your treatment will be monitored and you may be recommended to switch drugs if they aren't working for you.

Photo credit: ©AVERT by Corrie Wingate

Page last reviewed: 
01 May 2015
Next review date: 
01 November 2016

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