How Do You Treat HIV?

Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on July 28, 2020

There's no cure for HIV, but treatment options are much better than they were a few decades ago. Because of medical advancements, people can now live long, active lives with HIV.

Before you start treatment, tell your doctor about all of your past health issues and illnesses. Let them know about any alternative or complementary therapies you're using, as well as any supplements or drugs you're taking now: prescription, over-the-counter, and recreational.

Daily medication and regular testing can help keep the virus under control and slow the effects on your body for many years.

ART (Antiretroviral Therapy)

The medicines that treat HIV are called antiretroviral drugs. There are more than two dozen of them, and they fall into six main types. Each drug fights the virus in your body in a slightly different way.

Research shows that a combination, or "cocktail," of drugs is the best way to control HIV and lower the chances that the virus will become resistant to treatment. Your doctor will probably recommend that you take three different medicines from two of the groups.


Which specific ones your doctor prescribes depends on what other medical conditions you have, what medications you take, how well your immune system is working, and even how many pills you want to take each day.

You might also need medicines for health problems caused by or related to your HIV.

Medication Side Effects

The ART drugs can have side effects, although newer medications usually don't cause as many. You may have some for a short time. They might include:

Often, side effects will go away as your body adjusts to the medication.

If a side effect is bothersome, you may be able to do something about it. Check with your pharmacist or doctor about whether or not you should take your medications on an empty stomach. Let your doctor know you're having trouble. They might prescribe something to help or change your treatment regimen to lessen the impact.

Don't stop taking your ART. That could give HIV a chance to get stronger and do more damage.


You'll need tests to help your doctor plan your treatment and to see how well it's working.  If you change medicines, you will need tests to see how well they work.

A CD4 count tells your doctor how healthy your immune system is. HIV attacks your CD4 cells, and the test checks the number of them you have in a sample of your blood. You'll likely get your CD4 count tested about a month after you start treatment and then every 3 to 6 months.

The viral load is a measure of how much of the HIV virus is in your blood. You'll need to get tested about a month after you start treatment and then every 3 or 4 months to be sure your antiviral medications are still working.

Your doctor will also test you to make sure the strain of HIV you have isn't resistant to any drugs. Sometimes HIV will change, or mutate, into a form that certain medicines can't treat.

Other tests check on your health to help you avoid related illnesses and conditions.


If you have health insurance, your insurer may pay for your treatment. If they don't, or you don't have health insurance, you can get coverage through a government program like Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies can't refuse to cover you because you have HIV or AIDS.

WebMD Medical Reference



CDC: "HIV/AIDS: Testing," "National HIV and STD Testing Resources: Frequently Asked Questions," "Act Against AIDS: Cost of Treatment." "Overview of HIV Treatments," "Side Effects," "Types of Lab Tests," "CD4 Count," "The Affordable Care Act and HIV/AIDS."

Avert: "HIV Testing," "Continuing antiretroviral (ARV) treatment."

Department of Health and Human Services: "HIV and Its Treatment: What You Should Know."

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