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    HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) Infection

    HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) Infection

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    Topic Overview

    What is HIV? What is AIDS?

    HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system , the body's natural defense system. Without a strong immune system, the body has trouble fighting off disease. Both the virus and the infection it causes are called HIV.

    White blood cells are an important part of the immune system. HIV infects and destroys certain white blood cells called CD4+ cells. If too many CD4+ cells are destroyed, the body can no longer defend itself against infection.

    The last stage of HIV infection is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). People with AIDS have a low number of CD4+ cells and get infections or cancers that rarely occur in healthy people. These can be deadly.

    But having HIV doesn't mean you have AIDS. Even without treatment, it takes a long time for HIV to progress to AIDS-usually 10 to 12 years.

    When HIV is diagnosed before it becomes AIDS, medicines can slow or stop the damage to the immune system. If AIDS does develop, medicines can often help the immune system return to a healthier state.

    With treatment, many people with HIV are able to live long and active lives.

    There are two types of HIV:

    • HIV-1, which causes almost all the cases of AIDS worldwide
    • HIV-2, which causes an AIDS-like illness. HIV-2 infection is uncommon in North America.

    What causes HIV?

    HIV infection is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. You can get HIV from contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluids.

    • Most people get the virus by having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV.
    • Another common way of getting it is by sharing drug needles with someone who is infected with HIV.
    • The virus can also be passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or breast-feeding.

    HIV doesn't survive well outside the body. So it can't be spread by casual contact like kissing or sharing drinking glasses with an infected person.

    What are the symptoms?

    HIV may not cause symptoms early on. People who do have symptoms may mistake them for the flu or mono . Common early symptoms include:

    • Fever.
    • Sore throat.
    • Headache.
    • Muscle aches and joint pain.
    • Swollen glands (swollen lymph nodes ).
    • Skin rash.

    Symptoms may appear from a few days to several weeks after a person is first infected. The early symptoms usually go away within 2 to 3 weeks.

    After the early symptoms go away, an infected person may not have symptoms again for many years. After a certain point, symptoms reappear and then remain. These symptoms usually include:

    • Swollen lymph nodes.
    • Extreme tiredness.
    • Weight loss.
    • Fever.
    • Night sweats.

    How is HIV diagnosed?

    A doctor may suspect HIV if symptoms last and no other cause can be found.

    If you have been exposed to HIV, your immune system will make antibodies to try to destroy the virus. Doctors use tests to find these antibodies in urine, saliva, or blood.

    If a test on urine or saliva shows that you are infected with HIV, you will probably have a blood test to confirm the results.

    Most doctors use two blood tests, called the ELISA and the Western blot. If the ELISA is positive (meaning that HIV antibodies are found), a Western blot or other test will be done to be sure.

    HIV antibodies usually show up in the blood within 3 months but can take as long as 6 months. If you think you have been exposed to HIV but you test negative for it:

    • Get tested again. Tests at 6, 12, and 24 weeks can be done to be sure you are not infected.
    • Meanwhile, take steps to prevent the spread of the virus, in case you do have it.

    You can get HIV testing in most doctors' offices, public health clinics, hospitals, and Planned Parenthood clinics. You can also buy a home HIV test kit in a drugstore or by mail order. Make sure it's one that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If a home test is positive, see a doctor to have the result confirmed and to find out what to do next.

    How is it treated?

    The standard treatment for HIV is a combination of medicines called antiretroviral therapy, or ART. Antiretroviral medicines slow the rate at which the virus multiplies.

    Taking these medicines can reduce the amount of virus in your body and help you stay healthy.

    Medical experts recommend that people begin treatment for HIV as soon as they know that they are infected. footnote 1, footnote 2

    To monitor the HIV infection and its effect on your immune system, a doctor will regularly do two tests:

    • Viral load, which shows the amount of virus in your blood.
    • CD4+ cell count, which shows how well your immune system is working.

    After you start treatment, it's important to take your medicines exactly as directed by your doctor. When treatment doesn't work, it is often because HIV has become resistant to the medicine. This can happen if you don't take your medicines correctly.

    How can you prevent HIV?

    HIV is often spread by people who don't know they have it. So it's always important to protect yourself and others by taking these steps:

    • Practice safer sex. Use a condom every time you have sex (including oral sex) until you are sure that you and your partner aren't infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted infection (STI).
    • Don't have more than one sex partner at a time. The safest sex is with one partner who has sex only with you.
    • Talk to your partner before you have sex the first time. Find out if he or she is at risk for HIV. Get tested together. Getting tested again at 6, 12, and 24 weeks after the first test can be done to be sure neither of you is infected. Use condoms in the meantime.
    • Don't drink a lot of alcohol or use illegal drugs before sex. You might let down your guard and not practice safer sex.
    • Don't share personal items, such as toothbrushes or razors.
    • Never share needles or syringes with anyone.

    If you are at high risk for getting infected with HIV, you can take antiretroviral medicine to help protect yourself from HIV infection. Experts may recommend this for: footnote 3

    • People whose sexual practices put them at high risk for HIV infection, such as men who have sex with men and people who have many sex partners.
    • People who inject illegal drugs, especially if they share needles.
    • Adults who have a sex partner with HIV.

    To keep your risk low, you still need to practice safer sex even while you are taking the medicine.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Learning about HIV:

    Being diagnosed:

    Getting treatment:

    Living with HIV:

    Health Tools

    Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

    Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
    Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.


    The HIV infection is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

    After HIV is in the body, it starts to destroy CD4+ cells, which are white blood cells that help the body fight infection and disease.

    HIV is spread when blood, semen, or vaginal fluids from an infected person enter another person's body, usually through sexual contact, from sharing needles when injecting drugs, or from mother to baby during birth.


    HIV may not cause symptoms early on. People who do have symptoms may mistake them for the flu or mono . Early symptoms of HIV are called acute retroviral syndrome . The symptoms may include:

    • Belly cramps, nausea, or vomiting.
    • Diarrhea.
    • Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin.
    • Fever.
    • Headache.
    • Muscle aches and joint pain.
    • Skin rash.
    • Sore throat.
    • Weight loss.

    These first symptoms can range from mild to severe and usually disappear on their own after 2 to 3 weeks. But many people don't have symptoms or they have such mild symptoms that they don't notice them at this stage.

    After the early symptoms go away, an infected person may not have symptoms again for many years. After a certain point, symptoms reappear and then remain.

    Untreated HIV infection progresses in stages. These stages are based on your symptoms and the amount of the virus in your blood.

    Later symptoms

    Later symptoms may include:

    • Diarrhea or other bowel changes.
    • Fatigue.
    • Fever.
    • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
    • Dry cough or shortness of breath.
    • Nail changes.
    • Night sweats.
    • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin.
    • Pain when swallowing.
    • Confusion, trouble concentrating, or personality changes.
    • Repeated outbreaks of cold sores or genital herpes sores.
    • Tingling, numbness, and weakness in the limbs.
    • Mouth sores or a yeast infection of the mouth ( thrush ).

    Symptoms in women and children

    HIV may be suspected when a woman has at least one of the following:

    Children who have HIV often have different symptoms (for example, delayed growth or an enlarged spleen ) than teens or adults.

    What Happens

    How HIV is spread

    HIV is spread when blood, semen, or vaginal fluids from an infected person enter another person's body, usually through:

    • Sexual contact. The virus may enter the body through a tear in the lining of the rectum, vagina, urethra, or mouth. Most cases of HIV are spread this way.
    • Infected blood. HIV can be spread when a person:
      • Shares needles, syringes, cookers, cotton, cocaine spoons, or eyedroppers used for injecting drugs or steroids.
      • Is accidentally stuck with a needle or other sharp item that is contaminated with HIV.

    HIV may be spread more easily in the early stage of infection and again later, when symptoms of HIV-related illness develop.

    A woman who is infected with HIV can spread the virus to her baby during pregnancy, delivery, or breast-feeding.

    How HIV is not spread

    The virus doesn't survive well outside the body. So HIV cannot be spread through casual contact with an infected person, such as by sharing drinking glasses, by casual kissing, or by coming into contact with the person's sweat or urine.

    It is now extremely rare in the United States for HIV to be transmitted by blood transfusions or organ transplants.

    The window period

    After you've been infected, it can take 2 weeks to 6 months for your body to start making HIV antibodies.

    This means that during this time you could have a negative HIV test, even though you have been infected and can spread the virus to others.

    This is commonly called the "window period," or seroconversion period .

    Stages of HIV

    Most people go through the following stages after being infected with HIV:

    Initial stage (stage 1)

    The first stage of HIV infection is defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a CD4+ cell count of at least 500 cells per microliter or a percentage of CD4+ cells at least 29% of all lymphocytes . People in this stage don't have any symptoms. footnote 4

    Chronic stage (stage 2)

    The second stage of HIV infection is defined by the CDC as a CD4+ cell count of 200 to 499 or a percentage of CD4+ cells of 14% to 28%. footnote 4 It may take years for HIV symptoms to develop during this stage. But even though no symptoms are present, the virus is making copies of itself (multiplying) in the body during this time.

    HIV multiplies so quickly that the immune system can't destroy the virus. After years of fighting HIV, the immune system starts to weaken.

    AIDS (stage 3)

    AIDS occurs when the CD4+ cell counts drop below 200, the percentage of CD4+ cells is less than 14%, or an AIDS-defining condition is present. footnote 5

    If HIV isn't treated, most people get AIDS within 10 to 12 years after the initial infection. With treatment for HIV, the progression to AIDS may be delayed or prevented.

    After your immune system starts to weaken, you are more likely to get certain infections or illnesses, called opportunistic infections. Examples include some types of pneumonia or cancer that are more common when you have a weakened immune system .

    A small number of people who are infected with HIV are rapid progressors . They develop AIDS within a few years if they don't get treatment. It is not known why the infection progresses faster in these people.

    Left untreated, AIDS is often fatal within 18 to 24 months after it develops. Death may occur sooner in people who rapidly progress through the stages of HIV or in young children.

    Nonprogressors and people who are HIV-resistant

    A few people have HIV that doesn't progress to more severe symptoms or disease. They are referred to as nonprogressors.

    A small number of people never become infected with HIV despite years of exposure to the virus. These people are said to be HIV-resistant.

    What Increases Your Risk

    Sexual contact

    You have an increased risk of becoming infected with HIV through sexual contact if you:

    • Have unprotected sex (do not use condoms).
    • Have multiple sex partners.
    • Are a man who has sex with other men.
    • Have high-risk partner(s) (partner has multiple sex partners, is a man who has sex with other men, or injects drugs).
    • Have or have recently had a sexually transmitted infection , such as syphilis or active herpes.

    Drug use

    People who inject drugs or steroids, especially if they share needles, syringes, cookers, or other equipment used to inject drugs, are at risk of being infected with HIV.

    Birth mother infected

    Babies who are born to mothers who are infected with HIV are also at risk of infection.

    Most children younger than 13 years who have HIV were infected with the virus by their mothers.

    When To Call a Doctor

    Known HIV infection

    If you are infected with HIV or caring for someone who is, call 911 or other emergency services immediately if any of the following conditions develop:

    Call your doctor if any of the following conditions develop:

    • Fever higher than 101°F (38.3°C) for 24 hours or a fever higher than 103°F (39.4°C)
    • Shortness of breath
    • Cough that produces mucus ( sputum )
    • New changes in balance or sensation (numbness, tingling, or pain)
    • Ongoing diarrhea
    • Unusual bleeding, such as from the nose or gums, blood in the urine or stool, or easy bruising
    • Ongoing headache or changes in vision
    • Rapid, unexplained weight loss
    • Night sweats
    • Fatigue
    • Swelling of lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin
    • Unusual sores, rashes, or bumps on the skin or around the genitals, anus, or mouth, or increased outbreaks of cold sores
    • Personality changes or a decline in mental ability, such as confusion, disorientation, or an inability to do mental tasks that the person has done in the past

    Suspected or known exposure to HIV and symptoms are present

    Call your doctor to find out whether HIV testing is needed if you suspect you have been exposed to HIV, particularly if you engage in high-risk behavior and have any of the following symptoms:

    • Abdominal cramps, nausea, or vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin
    • Fever
    • Headache
    • Muscle aches and joint pain
    • Skin rash
    • Sore throat
    • Unexplained weight loss
    • Yeast infection of the mouth ( thrush )

    Suspected or known exposure to HIV but no symptoms

    If you have not been tested for HIV, call your doctor if:

    • You suspect that you have been exposed to HIV.
    • You have engaged in high-risk behavior and are concerned that you were exposed to HIV.
    • Your sex partner engages in high-risk behavior.
    • Your sex partner may have been exposed to HIV.
    • Your sex partner has HIV.
    • You have any of the symptoms listed above.

    Getting tested for HIV can be scary, but the condition can be managed with treatment. So it is important to get tested if you think you have been exposed.

    Watchful waiting

    If you don't have symptoms of HIV even though you have tested positive for the virus, you and your doctor may simply keep watching for symptoms to occur.

    If you don't show any signs of disease and your CD4+ cell count is more than 500 cells per microliter (mcL), you may not need treatment. But during this time you still need regular checkups with a doctor to monitor the amount of HIV in your blood and see how well your immune system is working.

    Who to see

    Health professionals who can diagnose and may treat HIV include:

    HIV can also be diagnosed and treated at an HIV care clinic.

    Complications of HIV may require treatment by the following doctors:

    If you don't have a doctor

    Public health clinics and other organizations may provide free or low-cost, confidential testing and counseling about HIV and high-risk behavior.

    If you don't have a doctor, contact one of the following for information on HIV testing in your area:

    • Your county or state health department
    • Local AIDS organization
    • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 24-hour information hotline: 1-800-232-INFO (1-800-CDC-4636). Or see the CDC National HIV Testing Resources website at www.hivtest.org.
    • National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) hotline: 1-866-846-9366 (toll-free). Or see the NAPWA website at www.napwa.org.
    • U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) toll-free HIV hotline: 1-800-HIV-0440 (1-800-448-0440). Or see the NIH AIDS website at www.aidsinfo.nih.gov.

    To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

    Exams and Tests

    Early detection

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people should get tested for HIV as part of their regular medical care.

    The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends HIV testing: footnote 6

    • As part of regular medical care for people 15 to 65 years old.
    • For all pregnant women.
    • For people younger than 15 and older than 65 if they have a high risk for HIV, such as for people who engage in high-risk behavior.

    You and your doctor can decide if testing is right for you.

    Fear of being tested

    Some people are afraid to be tested for HIV. But if there is any chance you could be infected, it is very important to find out. HIV can be treated. Getting early treatment can slow down the virus and help you stay healthy. And you need to know if you are infected so you can prevent spreading the infection to other people.

    Your doctor may recommend counseling before and after HIV testing. It is usually available at the hospital or clinic where you will be tested. This will give you an opportunity to:

    • Discuss your fears about being tested.
    • Learn how to reduce your risk of becoming infected if your test is negative.
    • Learn how to keep from spreading HIV to others if your test is positive.
    • Think about personal issues, such as how having HIV will affect you socially, emotionally, professionally, and financially.
    • Learn what you need to do to stay healthy as long as possible.

    Testing positive for HIV will probably make you anxious and afraid about your future. Denial, fear, and depression are common reactions.

    Don't be afraid to ask for the emotional support you need. If your family and friends aren't able to provide you with support, a professional counselor can help.

    The good news is that people being treated for HIV are living longer than ever before with the help of medicines that can often prevent AIDS from developing. Your doctor can help you understand your condition and how best to treat it.

    Blood tests for HIV

    HIV is diagnosed when antibodies to HIV are found in the blood. The two main blood tests are:

    HIV is diagnosed when a positive ELISA test is confirmed by a positive Western blot assay or other test.

    Rapid antibody tests are available that give results right away. One rapid blood test can detect both HIV antibodies and antigens, which allows an HIV infection to be found earlier than was possible in the past. Positive results of a rapid test may need to be confirmed by the ELISA or Western blot test.

    Until you know the results of your test:

    • Avoid sexual contact with others. If you do have sex, practice safer sex.
    • Do not share needles, syringes, cookers, cotton, cocaine spoons, or eyedroppers.

    Home test kits for HIV

    A home test kit for HIV (called OraQuick) has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For the test, you rub your gums with a swab supplied by the kit. Then you place the swab into a vial of liquid. The test strip on the swab indicates if you have HIV or not.

    Another type of test kit for HIV is a home blood test kit. This type of kit provides instructions and materials for collecting a small blood sample by sticking your finger with a lancet. The blood is placed onto a special card that is then sent to a lab for analysis. You get the results over the phone using an anonymous code number. Counseling is also available over the phone for people who use the test kit.

    If the results from a home test kit show that you have an HIV infection, talk with a doctor.

    Testing positive for HIV

    If you test positive, your doctor will complete a medical history and physical exam.

    He or she may order several lab tests to check your overall health, including:

    • A complete blood count (CBC), to identify the numbers and types of cells in your blood.
    • A chemistry screen, to measure the blood levels of certain substances (such as electrolytes and glucose) and to see how well your liver and kidneys are working.

    Other tests may be done to check for current or past infections that may become worse because of HIV. You may be tested for:

    Ongoing tests

    When you have HIV, two tests are done regularly to see how much of the virus is in your blood (viral load) and how the virus is affecting your immune system :

    • CD4+ cell counts provide information about the health of your immune system.
    • Viral load measures the amount of HIV in your blood.

    The results of these tests may help you make decisions about starting treatment or switching to new medicines if the ones you are taking aren't helping.

    Testing for drug resistance

    HIV often changes or mutates in the body. Sometimes these changes make the virus resistant to certain medicines. Then the medicine no longer works.

    Medical experts recommend testing the blood of everyone diagnosed with HIV to look for this drug resistance. footnote 1 This information helps your doctor know what medicines to use.

    You also may be tested for drug resistance when:

    • You are ready to begin treatment.
    • You've been having treatment and your viral load numbers stop going down.
    • You've been having treatment and your viral load numbers become detectable after not being detectable.

    How is AIDS diagnosed?

    AIDS is the last and most severe stage of HIV infection. It is diagnosed if the results of your test show that you have:

    Treatment Overview

    The most effective treatment for HIV is antiretroviral therapy (ART), a combination of several medicines that aims to control the amount of virus in your body. For more information, see Medications.

    Other steps you can take include the following:

    • Keep your immune system strong by eating right, quitting smoking, and learning how to avoid infection. For more information, see Home Treatment.
    • Monitor your CD4+ (white blood cells) counts to check the effect of the virus on your immune system. For more information, see Exams and Tests.
    • See a counselor to help you handle the strong emotions and stress that can follow an HIV diagnosis. For more information, see Other Treatment.
    • Reduce stress so that you can better manage the HIV illness. For more information, see Other Treatment.

    Starting treatment

    Medical experts recommend that people begin treatment for HIV as soon as they know that they are infected. footnote 1, footnote 2 Treatment is especially important for pregnant women, people who have other infections (such as tuberculosis or hepatitis), and people who have symptoms of AIDS.

    Research suggests that treatment of early HIV with antiretroviral medicines has long-term benefits, such as a stronger immune system. footnote 1

    But you may decide not to get treated at first. If you put off treatment, you will still need regular checkups to measure the amount of HIV in your blood and check how well your immune system is working.

    You may want to start HIV treatment if your sex partner doesn't have HIV. Treatment of your HIV infection can help prevent the spread of HIV to your sex partner. footnote 1

    HIV: When Should I Start Taking Antiretroviral Medicines for HIV Infection?

    Treatment to prevent HIV infection

    Health care workers who are at risk for HIV because of an accidental needlestick or other exposure to body fluids should get medicine to prevent infection. footnote 7

    Also, medicine may prevent HIV infection in a person who has been raped or was accidentally exposed to the body fluids of a person who may have HIV. footnote 8 This type of treatment is usually started within 72 hours of the exposure.

    And studies have shown that if you are not infected with HIV, taking antiretroviral medicines can protect you against HIV. footnote 9, footnote 10, footnote 11 But to keep your risk low, you still need to use safer sex practices.

    Living with HIV

    Learning how to live with HIV infection may keep your immune system strong, while also preventing the spread of HIV to others.

    If your partner has HIV:

    Treatment for AIDS

    If HIV progresses to a late stage, treatment will be started or continued to keep your immune system as healthy as possible.

    If you get any diseases that point to AIDS, such as Pneumocystis pneumonia or Kaposi's sarcoma , your doctor will treat them.

    Many important end-of-life decisions can be made while you are active and able to communicate your wishes. For more information, see the topic Care at the End of Life.


    Safer sex

    Practice safer sex. This includes using a condom unless you are in a relationship with one partner who does not have HIV or other sex partners.

    If you do have sex with someone who has HIV, it is important to practice safer sex and to be regularly tested for HIV.

    Talk with your sex partner or partners about their sexual history as well as your own sexual history. Find out whether your partner has a history of behaviors that increase his or her risk for HIV.

    You may be able to take a combination medicine (tenofovir plus emtricitabine) every day to help prevent infection with HIV. This medicine can lower the risk of getting HIV. footnote 9, footnote 10, footnote 11 But the medicine is expensive, and you still need to practice safer sex to keep your risk low.

    Alcohol and drugs

    If you use alcohol or drugs, be very careful. Being under the influence can make you careless about practicing safer sex.

    And never share intravenous (IV) needles, syringes, cookers, cotton, cocaine spoons, or eyedroppers with others if you use drugs.

    If you already have HIV

    If you are infected with HIV, you can greatly lower the risk of spreading the infection to your sex partner by starting treatment when your immune system is still healthy.

    Experts recommend starting treatment as soon as you know you are infected. footnote 1

    Studies have shown that early treatment greatly lowers the risk of spreading HIV to an uninfected partner. footnote 12, footnote 13

    Your partner may also be able to take medicine to prevent getting infected. footnote 3 This is called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

    Steps to prevent spreading HIV

    If you are HIV-positive (infected with HIV) or have engaged in sex or needle-sharing with someone who could be infected with HIV, take precautions to prevent spreading the infection to others.

    • Take antiretroviral medicines. Getting treated for HIV can help prevent the spread of HIV to people who are not infected.
    • Tell your sex partner or partners about your behavior and whether you are HIV-positive.
    • Follow safer sex practices, such as using condoms.
    • Do not donate blood, plasma, semen, body organs, or body tissues.
    • Do not share personal items, such as toothbrushes, razors, or sex toys, that may be contaminated with blood, semen, or vaginal fluids.

    If you are pregnant

    The risk of a woman spreading HIV to her baby can be greatly reduced if she:

    • Is on medicine that reduces the amount of virus in her blood to undetectable levels during pregnancy.
    • Continues treatment during pregnancy.
    • Does not breast-feed her baby.

    The baby should also receive treatment after it is born.

    Home Treatment

    If you are infected with HIV, you can lead an active life for a long time.

    Make healthy lifestyle choices

    Join a support group

    Support groups are often good places to share information, problem-solving tips, and emotions related to HIV infection.

    You may be able to find a support group by searching the Internet. Or you can ask your doctor to help you find one.

    Prevent other illnesses

    Get the immunizations and the medicine treatment you need to prevent certain infections or illnesses, such as some types of pneumonia or cancer that are more likely to develop in people who have a weakened immune system.

    Tips for caregivers

    A skilled caregiver can provide the emotional, physical, and medical care that will improve the quality of life for a person who has HIV.

    If your partner has HIV:


    Medicines used to treat HIV are called antiretrovirals. Several of these are combined for treatment called antiretroviral therapy, or ART.

    When choosing medicines, your doctor will think about:

    • How well the medicines reduce viral load.
    • How likely it is that the virus will become resistant to a certain type of medicine.
    • The cost of medicines.
    • Medicine side effects and your willingness to live with them.

    Medicines for HIV may have unpleasant side effects. They may sometimes make you feel worse than you did before you started taking them. Talk to your doctor about your side effects. He or she may be able to adjust your medicines or prescribe a different one.

    You may be able to take several medicines combined into one pill. This reduces the number of pills you have to take each day.

    HIV: Taking Antiretroviral Drugs

    Medicine choices

    • Nucleoside/nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors, such as abacavir, emtricitabine, and tenofovir.
    • Nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs), such as efavirenz, etravirine, and nevirapine.
    • Protease inhibitors (PIs), such as atazanavir, darunavir, and ritonavir.
    • Entry inhibitors, such as enfuvirtide and maraviroc.
    • Integrase inhibitors, such as dolutegravir and raltegravir.

    Drug resistance

    Resistance to HIV medicines can occur when:

    • There is a change in the way your body absorbs the medicine.
    • There are interactions between two or more medicines you are taking.
    • The virus changes and no longer responds to the medicines you are taking.
    • You have been infected with a drug-resistant strain of the virus.
    • You have not taken your medicines as prescribed by your doctor.

    Using antiretroviral therapy (ART) reduces your risk of developing resistance to HIV medicines.

    Treatment failure

    If your viral load doesn't drop as expected, or if your CD4+ cell count starts to fall, your doctor will try to find out why the treatment didn't work.

    There are two main reasons that treatment fails:

    • The virus that causes HIV has become resistant. The medicine no longer works to control virus multiplication or protect your immune system. Tests can show if resistance has occurred. You may need a different combination of medicines.
    • You did not take your medicine as prescribed. If you have trouble taking the medicines exactly as prescribed, talk with your doctor.

    Other Treatment


    Counseling may help you to:

    • Deal with strong emotions.
    • Reduce anxiety and depression.

    Reducing stress

    Reducing stress can help you better manage the HIV illness. Some methods of stress reduction include:

    • Relaxation, which involves breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
    • Guided imagery, a series of thoughts and suggestions that help you relax.
    • Biofeedback , which teaches you to relax through learning to control a body function that isn't normally under conscious control, such as heart rate or skin temperature.
    • Problem solving , which focuses on any current problems in your life and helps you solve them.
    • Acupuncture, which involves the insertion of very thin needles into the skin to stimulate energy flow throughout the body. It may also help reduce the side effects of HIV medicines.

    Medical marijuana

    Marijuana has been shown to stimulate the appetite and relieve nausea. Talk to your doctor if you're interested in trying it.

    Alternative treatments

    Alternative and complementary treatments for HIV need to be carefully evaluated.

    Some people with HIV may use these types of treatment to help with fatigue and weight loss caused by HIV infection and reduce the side effects caused by antiretroviral therapy (ART).

    Some complementary therapies for other problems may actually be harmful. For example, St. John's wort decreases the effectiveness of certain prescription medicines for HIV.

    Make sure to discuss complementary therapies with your doctor before trying them.

    Other Places To Get Help


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) (U.S.)
    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: AIDSinfo

    Related Information



    1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents (2013). Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in HIV-1-Infected Adults and Adolescents. Available online: http://www.aidsinfo.nih.gov/ContentFiles/AdultandAdolescentGL.pdf.
    2. Thompson MA, et al. (2012). Antiretroviral treatment of adult HIV infection: 2012 recommendations of the International Antiviral Society-USA Panel. JAMA, 308(4): 387-402.
    3. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Preexposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention in the United States-2014: A clinical practice guideline. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/prepguidelines2014.pdf. Accessed July 27, 2014.
    4. Schneider E, et al. (2008). Revised surveillance case definitions for HIV infection among adults, adolescents, and children aged < 18 months and for HIV infection and AIDS among children aged 18 months to < 13 years-United States, 2008. MMWR, 57(RR-10): 1-12. Also available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/rr/rr5710.pdf.
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    ByHealthwise Staff
    Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
    Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Shalit, MD, PhD - Internal Medicine

    Current as ofMay 22, 2015

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