Antiretroviral therapy -- or ART -- revolutionized HIV treatment in the past few decades. And newer improvements, like one-pill-a-day drugs, are making life with HIV easier and safer.
"HIV really is a chronic disease now," says Brad Hare, MD, medical director of the HIV/AIDS Division at San Francisco General Hospital. "It's like diabetes or high blood pressure." As long as you manage it well, you should expect a long, healthy life.
ART works by combining drugs that attack the virus in different ways. ART doesn't cure HIV. But it stops it from reproducing itself and spreading.
Doctors measure HIV by the viral load -- that's the amount of the virus that's in your bloodstream. The goal of treatment is to get the viral load so low that tests can't even detect the virus anymore. HIV is still there, but there's not enough of it to cause symptoms -- as long as you keep taking your medication. Also remember that you can still pass HIV to someone else while on medication.
5 Things to Know About HIV Medications
There are lots of myths and stale, outdated information about HIV treatment. Here are five things you should know about ART.
It's easier to take than it used to be. A lot of people with HIV just take one pill once a day. That's it. That one combination pill -- Atripla, Complera, or Stribild -- packs in all the different active ingredients you need. Most people don't need the "cocktails" with complicated dosing schedules anymore.
You have lots of options. Some people need drug combinations. There are six classes of antiretroviral drugs for HIV and more than 30 drugs. If one doesn't work or causes side effects, the doctor has many other choices.
Medications work for a long time. People used to worry that their drugs would stop working after a while and that they'd have to keep switching to new ones. That's not really a risk now. "As long as you keep taking your medications, the same treatment can work for decades," Hare says.
Drugs have fewer side effects. While specific side effects depend on the drug, HIV treatment is much safer and easier to tolerate than it used to be. For most people, side effects -- like upset stomach and diarrhea -- are minor and often go away. Long-term risks include cholesterol problems and weakened bones. But even so, the risks of treatment are much lower than the risks of not getting it, Hare says.
You may start taking medication as soon as you're diagnosed. Many experts believe that the sooner you start treatment, the better. However, some doctors prefer to wait until your CD4 count, a measure of some immune cells, drops to a certain point before starting treatment. See what your doctor recommends.