Best Ways to Treat HIV Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on May 22, 2023
5 min read

You have HIV. Now, you’re getting symptoms you’ve never had before. Perhaps you’re dropping weight for no reason or can’t seem to shake a nagging cough.

Why are you feeling sick?

It’s possible your HIV isn’t under control. That’s most likely to happen if you’re not on antiretroviral therapy (ART), medicines that fight the virus. However, it can also happen if you aren’t taking ART correctly, or if the drugs aren't working for you.

When HIV grows uncontrollably, the amount of virus in your blood goes up and hurts your immune system. It destroys cells called CD4s. Without enough of these, your body has a hard time fighting common infections and other health problems that it could normally handle easily. 

Call your doctor if you get new symptoms. They can get to the bottom of what’s wrong and find ways to help you feel better.

Weight loss:  Shedding pounds without trying is an obvious sign that your HIV may be going in the wrong direction. Untreated HIV itself or infections you get because of it can make you lose weight.  Plus, if you’re sick, you may not feel like eating.

If you lose 10% or more of your body weight (like 15 pounds if you weigh 150 pounds), you could have what’s called wasting syndrome. You also have diarrhea, weakness, and fever for about a month. This mostly affects people with advanced HIV.

It’s important to try to put weight back on. In addition to taking your HIV medications, a few things can help:

  • Talk to a dietitian to make sure your diet is balanced and gives you the calories you need.
  • Build up your muscle mass with workouts like weightlifting or resistance exercises, like pushups, planks, and squats.
  • Try high-protein supplements. (First, ask your doctor or dietitian if you need them.)
  • Treat infections that may cause diarrhea or loss of appetite.
  • Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help with wasting syndrome, called megestrol acetate (Megace) and dronabinol (Marinol). 

Skin problems: Dry, itchy skin is a common issue for people whose immune systems are damaged from HIV. Skin infections like impetigo or tinea can be a problem, too.

Treatments include:

  • Antifungal or antibacterial creams
  • Steroids and antihistamines
  • Moisturizers 

Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection that causes small, flesh-colored bumps on the skin. The virus can grow out of control in people with HIV, so see a dermatologist for treatment right away. 

Painful, blistering rash: It could be shingles if you’ve ever had chickenpox -- the same virus causes both. Usually, shingles affect people over age 60. But if you have HIV, you can get it even if you’re younger.

It’s important to see your doctor if you think you have shingles. Antiviral medicines can help you get over it more quickly -- but you need to start taking them as soon as possible.

Other treatments include:

  • Pain medicine
  • Calamine lotion, colloidal oatmeal baths, or wet compresses to relieve itching

Fever: Running a temperature usually means your body is fighting an infection. Your doctor may do some tests to figure out what’s causing your fever so they can decide how to treat the problem.

In addition to following your doctor's advice, do these things to bring down a fever:

Nagging cough: A cough isn’t always a sign of something serious. But one that hangs around for weeks can be.

People with low CD4 counts are more likely to get a lung infection called pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP). It can cause a dry cough, shortness of breath, and make you feel very tired.

Be sure you talk to your doctor if you have the symptoms of this infection -- without treatment, it can be deadly.  You may need to be admitted to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

People with weak immune systems are more likely to get tuberculosis (TB). You may bring up lots of phlegm when you cough and have chest pain, fever, and weight loss, too. If tests show that you have TB, you’ll need to take antibiotics for several months.

Night sweats:  Do you wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat? It can be a symptom of HIV itself or other infections (like TB). The sweating will stop when your doctor figures out what’s causing the problem and treats it.

What else can you do in the meantime?

  • Make your bedroom as cool as possible by turning down the temperature and running fans.
  • Buy moisture-wicking pajamas and sheets.

Mouth problems: It’s not unusual for people with HIV to have sores in their mouths. Infections can cause problems like thrush or cold sores as the disease gets worse.

These conditions can make it painful to chew and swallow your food. Your doctor may suggest medicines to fight the infection and the pain.

Long-lasting diarrhea: People with weak immune systems can get infections that cause diarrhea. It can last for a few weeks. Your doctor will do a thorough workup to figure out the problem.

To control symptoms, your doctor may suggest:

  • Anti-diarrhea meds to slow down the waste in your intestines and keep you from going as often
  • Soft, easy-to-digest foods like bananas, rice, and potatoes
  • Plenty of water, tea, and other healthy drinks to stay hydrated

Let your doctor know if your diarrhea gets worse or you get a fever, vomiting, or pain.

The symptoms and illnesses described above are likely the result of advanced HIV, which means that the virus has been growing unchecked in your body for months to years.

If you’re not on ART or you’re not taking it exactly as you’re supposed to, now is the time to start taking it correctly. These medications will lower the amount of the virus in your blood so your immune system can recover.  Even people with uncontrolled HIV can get the right treatment and go on to live a healthy life. Make sure to follow your doctor’s advice regarding your HIV medicine and other medicines prescribed for your specific conditions.

You may need to change your meds if you can’t stand the side effects or if they’re not controlling your disease well. But don’t stop taking them before you talk to your doctor.