Finding out you are HIV positive does not necessarily mean that you will have to start taking tablets. However at some point it will be advised by your Doctor to start HIV treatment. For some people this may be very soon and others may be able to wait for many years.
HIV drugs are often called combination therapy, this is because you will need to take a combination of drugs or it may also be called HAART, Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy.
HAART is highly effective and aims to reduce the amount of virus in your body to tiny amounts but it does not get rid of the virus completely. HAART works by stopping the virus from making more of itself. Each drug from a combination you will take will interfere with the different stages of this process, therefore reducing the viral load in your blood. If the viral load is low, your immune system and your CD4 count will have the chance to get stronger again. Your Doctors at your clinic will advise you to start taking HAART if your CD4 count has fallen below 350, A CD4 count below 350, indicates a weakened immune system. If a CD4 count drops below 200, the patient is vulnerable to serious infections. Also the Doctors may recommend that you will benefit from taking HAART due to another reason such as another infection you may have at the time.
HAART is essential in keeping you well and once started, is life long, and taking a break from treatment is not recommended as the virus can grow stronger and the drugs can stop working.
The Doctors and Specialist Nurses in the Clinic you attend will discuss the recommendation of starting HAART and together you will decide on which of the medicines will suit you best. It is very important for you to share your wishes and concerns with your team. They will also discuss the importance of adherence to the treatment with you. HAART must be taken at the right time, thus ensuring that all the drugs in the combination are at high enough levels to keep the HIV viral load down constantly. Your team will help you develop a routine or daily schedule.
It is extremely important that you let your doctor know if you take any other drugs including medication from your GP, dentist, over the counter, herbal remedies, recreational drugs and any bought from the internet. This is because many other drugs can affect the anti-HIV drugs and may stop them from working.
We know all medicines have side effects and unfortunately HAART is no different. The side effects of HAART vary in their severity from person to person and some patients do not experience any side effects. After a few weeks, most people find that taking HAART gets easier. Most side effects are usually mild and transient in nature. Anti- sickness or anti- diarrhoea medicines may be prescribed to take alongside HAART to ease the side effects in the first few days or weeks.
There is only a small risk of serious side effects, and these should be picked up by careful monitoring. Your Doctors and Specialist nurses will ensure that you are aware of how to manage side effects and to seek medical advice/care should you need it. You will also be given a clinic / doctor contact details card to take home.
The National AIDS Manual has produced a chart outlining a comprehensive list of all the antiretroviral drugs used to treat people living with HIV in the UK. If you have any questions about your medication or any of the drugs listed on this chart please speak to your HIV consultant in clinic.