There is no cure for HIV infection at this time. But treatments are available to manage symptoms and reduce how much the virus copies itself (replicates). Treatment can also improve the quality and length of life for those who have already developed symptoms.
Antiretroviral therapy suppresses the replication of the HIV virus in the body. A combination of antiretroviral drugs, called antiretroviral therapy (ART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), is very effective in reducing the amount of HIV in the bloodstream. This effect is measured by the viral load (how much free virus is found in the blood). Preventing the virus from reproducing (replicating) can improve T-cell counts and help the immune system recover from HIV infection.
People on ART with suppressed levels of HIV can still transmit the virus to others through sex or by sharing needles. ART can prolong and improve life if the level of HIV remains suppressed and the CD4 count remains high (above 200 cells/mm3).
HIV can become resistant to one combination of ART. This is most true in patients who do not take their medications on schedule every day. Tests can check whether an HIV strain is resistant to a certain drug. This information can help the health care provider find the best drug combination and adjust the drug combination when it starts to fail.
When HIV becomes resistant to ART, other drug combinations must be used to try to suppress the resistant strain of HIV. A variety of new drugs on the market treat drug-resistant HIV.
ART treatment can have complications. Each drug has its own side effects. Common side effects are:
- Collection of fat on the back (buffalo hump) and abdomen
- General sick feeling (malaise)
When used for a long time, these drugs increase the risk of heart attack, perhaps by increasing the levels of cholesterol and glucose (sugar) in the blood.
People on ART are monitored by their health care provider for possible side effects. Blood tests measuring CD4 counts and HIV viral load will likely be done every 3 months. The goal is to get the CD4 count close to normal and to suppress the amount of HIV virus in the blood to a level where it cannot be detected.
Medicines may be prescribed to treat problems related to AIDS, such as anemia and low white blood cell count, and to prevent opportunistic infections.