Side Effects of HIV Medicines

The main goal of HIV treatment is to fight the virus in your body. Almost as important is trying to do this without causing unpleasant, unhealthy side effects.

Side effects vary from person to person. For some, they're mild. For others, they get in the way of daily life.

Ask your doctor about what you can expect from your treatment so you know what to prepare and watch out for. Certain drugs may have potentially life-threatening side effects, so it's essential that you know what to look for.

Feeling "off" can be caused by:

You should work with your doctor to figure out what's causing your symptoms and to make your side effects less of a problem.

Keep taking your HIV medications. It's dangerous to change how you're taking them -- or to stop altogether -- if you're unhappy with how you feel or how they affect you. That can make it easier for the HIV virus to become resistant to drugs and harder to treat. Continuing treatment is key to not only preventing the development of AIDS, but is key to maintaining a relatively normal lifestyle. It is possible, with the correct treatment to obtain a normal life expectancy.

Short-Term Side Effects

When you first start ART or change your antiretroviral drugs, you may have side effects as your body adjusts to it. Although these may bother you for a while, they often get better within a few weeks. Sometimes, you can do or take something a few days before you begin or change your medications to prevent or lessen the side effects.

If your symptoms don't get better, or if they're severe or unusual, tell your doctor right away. They may be caused by the ARTdrugs or something else.

You can manage most common, short-term side effects with changes to your lifestyle or habits. Don't smoke, do eat well, and try to exercise every day. Reach out for support if you need to.

Your doctor may also be able to change your dose, how you take the medicine, or switch you to a different drug.

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Fatigue . Try brief 20-30 minute naps. Cut back your work schedule if you can. Balanced meals will give your body fuel, and gentle exercise can boost your energy. 

Feeling queasy and throwing up. Many HIV medicines should be taken with food. Make sure you know these food requirements. Avoid foods that trigger an upset stomach. Ginger -- in ginger ale, ginger tea, or gingersnaps -- may help settle your tummy. Eat some crackers in the morning. Stick with small meals and cold foods. Drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. Don't take antacids or other over-the-counter products unless your doctor says it's OK.

Diarrhea . Get plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Talk to your doctor about which over-the-counter (OTC) diarrhea products are safe to take.

Headaches . An OTC pain reliever may work. Rest, drink plenty of fluids, and stay away from loud noise and bright light.

Insomnia . Limit caffeine, and avoid heavy meals close to bedtime. It may be tempting, but try not to take daytime naps; stay on a regular sleeping schedule. Try relaxing bedtime habits such as warm baths, warm milk, soothing music, or massage to tell your body it's time to sleep.

Rashes . Avoid long, hot showers or baths, and skin products with alcohol or harsh chemicals. Use sunscreen and moisturizing lotions or petroleum jelly on dry, itchy areas.

Reactions where you've been stuck by a needle (if taking an injectable medicine). Check with your doctor to make sure your injection technique is good. Change your injection sites so you give your skin and tissues a chance to heal. Warm the medicine in your hands before you inject it, and apply a cold pack to the area afterward.

Pain, tingling, or numbness in your feet or hands. Gently massage them. Wear loose-fitting shoes or jewelry. OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen may help.

Dry mouth . Suck on sugarless candies or lozenges, or chew sugarless gum. Drink plenty of liquids. Avoid sugary or sticky foods and caffeine.

Remember: All of these can be signs of an underlying problem unrelated to your HIV treatment, too. Always call your doctor if you anticipate wanting to stop your medication because of possible side effects. If you have any serious symptoms, regardless of whether they might be related to your medicines, call your doctor. If very serious, call 911.

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Long-Term Side Effects

Some side effects may not go away or could cause serious problems. Yet there is often a way to manage them so that they're less troublesome.

Fat redistribution. Your body may change the way it makes, uses, and stores fat. This is called lipodystrophy. You might lose fat in your face and legs while gaining it in your belly and the back of your neck. You might be able to switch medications to keep symptoms from getting worse, but there are few other options for dealing with this.

Higher cholesterol or triglyceride levels. These can raise your risk for problems such as heart disease. Diet and other lifestyle changes are a first step. You doctor may also want you to take medications such as statins and fibrates.

Higher blood sugar levels. Regular exercise, watching your weight, and other lifestyle changes are a good place to start. Your doctor may also recommend medicine to help control your blood sugar.

Loss of bone density. You could be more likely to get broken bones, especially as you get older. Try weight-bearing exercises like walking or weight lifting. Check with your doctor about taking calcium and vitamin D supplements. You may need medications to treat or prevent osteoporosis.

Weight loss. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about ways you can keep healthy pounds on. High-protein shakes as well as other products with a lot of protein and low sugar help some people.

A buildup of a cellular waste product (lactic acidosis). It's uncommon, but it can cause a wide range of problems, from muscle aches to liver failure. You may need to switch medicines.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on June 20, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

AVERT: "Antiretroviral side effects."

AIDS.gov: "What Are Side Effects?"

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "Tips for Common Side Effects."

Project Inform: "Dealing with drug side effects."

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