Anti-HIV treatment has transformed HIV into a manageable, long-term condition that can enable people living with HIV to live longer and healthier lives. HIV medication stops the virus from replicating, decreasing the amount of HIV in the blood. This ensures the impact on your body is minimal and can make the likelihood of passing on the virus very low.
When do I need to start treatment?
Latest scientific evidence suggests that it is much better for someone living with HIV to start treatment as soon as they are able, even if their CD4 count is still high. The evidence for this is taken from the START trial which included over 4600 people from over 35 countries. The study revealed that those starting treatment earlier more than halved their risk of serious illness.
You can find out more about the study here.
Do I really need to take my medication every day?
For your HIV treatment to be successful, you will probably need to take three different drugs, which affect HIV at different stages of its replication. HIV treatments are simpler to take than they used to be and there are options so you can find the combination that’s best for you. The three drugs might come in one or two tablets, making them easier to take.
Once you go on treatment you must take it properly and regularly, this is called adherence. Missing even a few doses a month can mean your treatment doesn’t work as well as it could do, and your HIV may become resistant to those drugs. It’s important to follow your doctor’s instructions about taking your treatments and what to do if you forget to take it.
What about side effects?
It is completely normal for medication to have side effects; you just need to find the ones with the least side effects if you can. HIV treatments have advanced significantly over the years and some of the more severe side effects are no longer a problem. Most side effects such as nausea, headaches and diarrhoea generally subside within the first few weeks however some may persist. Talking to your doctor will ensure you get the combination right and they will be able to give you some advice for managing your medication. Simple tips such as keeping a diary of any side effects so your doctor can easily see the problems or taking your medication before bed so that you will sleep through the immediate effects can be really effective.
ARVs can also interfere with other prescribed drugs that you can buy over the counter, herbal remedies or recreational drugs. Think about telling your pharmacist or doctor what other medication or drugs you are taking so that you can access the best HIV treatment.
Every time HIV reproduces there is a chance it can change in a way that means it is less susceptible to medication. This means the virus will continue to replicate and you may have to change your treatment. At your first specialist appointment, your blood should be tested for resistance, ensuring you’re given the most effective treatment. If you find you are resistant to a particular treatment, there are other treatment options.
When you start treatment you will be started on more than one type of drug, although you may only take one tablet. Multi-drug use makes it harder for HIV to become resistant to one particular type. Ensuring that you always keep up to date with your medication by taking it at the correct times every day means your viral load will be as low as possible. This makes it more difficult for HIV to mutate and reproduce, and makes you significantly less infectious.
Will I have to pay for my treatment?
Anyone, regardless of immigration status has the right to access free HIV treatment in Scotland. Scotland has a good record of ensuring all people living with HIV have treatment access. If you have any trouble let us know.
What is treatment as prevention?
HIV treatment reduces the amount of virus in the body, thus the chances of someone living with HIV transmitting it to a negative partner are decreased dramatically.
In fact, the HPTN study revealed that this risk can actually be decreased up to 96% if the positive partner has an undetectable viral load. This can be important and useful if you are in a relationship with differing HIV statuses. Talk to your doctor about treatment as prevention or use our service finder for information on where to get advice.
If you are struggling with adherence, side effects or drug resistance there are many places you can go to for support. MyHIV an online community for people living with HIV or use our service finder. Ibase is another useful website with information on treatments.
Try Aidsmap Factsheets for more information on treatments.