What is human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)?
HIV is a virus that attacks and gradually weakens your
immune system. HIV infects CD4+ cells, a type of
white blood cell. As HIV-infected CD4+ cells are
destroyed or impaired, the immune system becomes less able to fight infection
and disease. HIV infection can progress to AIDS.
What increases my risk for HIV?
Most people get
HIV by having unprotected sex with someone who has HIV. Another common way of
getting the virus is by sharing needles with someone infected with HIV when
You have an increased risk of developing HIV
through sexual contact if you:
- Have unprotected sex (do not use condoms).
- Have multiple sex partners.
- Are a man who has sex with
- Have high-risk partner(s) (a man or woman who has multiple sex
partners or injects drugs, or a man who has sex with men).
- Have or
have recently had a
sexually transmitted disease, such as
People who are also at increased risk of developing HIV
- Those who inject drugs or steroids,
especially if they share needles, syringes, cookers, or other equipment used to
- Babies born to women who are infected with
What are antiretroviral medicines?
medicines are used to slow the rate at which HIV makes copies of itself
(replicates) in the body. A combination of 3 or more antiretroviral medicines
highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) is the
standard treatment for HIV infection. It is more effective than using just one
medicine (monotherapy) in the treatment of HIV. This treatment approach offers
the best chance of preventing HIV from multiplying and allowing your immune
system to stay healthy.
How effective are antiretroviral medicines?
goal of antiretroviral therapy is to reduce the amount of virus in your body
(viral load) to a level that is low enough that it can
no longer be detected by laboratory tests.
The use of 3 or more
antiretroviral medicines (HAART) does not cure HIV infection. But people who
are treated with HAART:
- Avoid developing AIDS, or recover from the
symptoms of AIDS and enjoy a return to better health.
- Have fewer
opportunistic infections that are more common in
people who have weakened immune systems, such as certain types of
- Experience significant drops in
their viral loads, often to the point that the virus can no longer be detected
in their blood with currently available tests. This is the goal of
- Have a stable or slowly increasing CD4+ cell
From 1995 to 1996, the numbers of Americans who developed
opportunistic infections or who died from AIDS declined for the first time in
the history of the epidemic. In 1996, the widespread use of HAART began.
Experts believe that the use of HAART is mostly responsible for the continuing
decline of deaths from AIDS.2
What are the benefits of starting antiretroviral medicines before symptoms of HIV develop?
The advantages of beginning
treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) before HIV-related symptoms
- Increased ability to achieve and maintain
control of viral replication.
- Delay or prevention of the weakening
of the immune system. The risk of opportunistic infections-such as
cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection, Mycobacterium avium
complex (MAC), Pneumocystispneumonia,
cryptosporidiosis, and AIDS
- Slower progression of
HIV to AIDS.
- Lower risk of
resistance to the medicines, if viral suppression is
- Possibly lowered risk of HIV transmission.
Note: Even with early therapy, the risk of HIV
transmission still exists. Antiretroviral therapy cannot substitute for
prevention measures, such as use of condoms and
safe sex practices.
- An increase in life
What are the risks of starting antiretroviral medicines before symptoms of HIV develop?
Not all the risks of starting
antiretroviral therapy before HIV-related symptoms develop are known. The
disadvantages of beginning treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART)
before HIV-related symptoms develop include:1
- Greater chance of serious medicine-related
- Earlier development of resistance to the medicines
if viral suppression is not complete.
- Limitation of future
antiretroviral treatment options.
- Cost of medicines, which may
cause a financial hardship.
What are the benefits of waiting until symptoms of HIV develop before starting antiretroviral medicines?
The advantages of
delaying treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) until HIV-related
symptoms or AIDS develops include:1
- Avoiding serious medicine-related problems and
- Delaying development of resistance to the
- Preserving the maximum number of antiretroviral medicine
options when HIV disease risk is highest.
- Saving money by not
having to buy expensive anti-HIV medicines.
What are the risks of waiting until symptoms of HIV develop before starting antiretroviral medicines?
disadvantages of delaying treatment with antiretroviral medicines (HAART) until
HIV-related symptoms or AIDS develops include an increased risk of:1
- Illness or death due to a weakened immune system.
- Not controlling the amount of virus in your
- Spreading HIV to others.
For more information, see the topic
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection.