What Kind of Treatments Are There for HIV Infection?

In general, the treatments for HIV include four different types:

  1. There are treatments directed at the virus itself. These treatments are called antiretroviral therapy and they block the virus from multiplying in the body's cells.
  2. There are treatments directed at HIV-related infections that patients develop when the immune system has been weakened by HIV. These treatments are typically antibiotics that fight infection. Because these infections occur in patients when the immune system has been weakened by HIV, medications used to treat them work best if the patient is also taking antiretroviral therapy.
  3. There are treatments directed at HIV-related cancers that can develop when the immune system has been weakened by HIV. The medications used to treat these cancers work best if the patient is also taking antiretroviral therapy. In fact, some cancers (e.g., Kaposi's sarcoma) often disappear with antiretroviral therapy alone.
  4. There are treatments directed at HIV-related systemic conditions that many patients develop. For example, treatment can help people with HIV-related wasting syndrome gain weight, or can relieve pain in patients with HIV-related painful neuropathy.

How Does HIV Treatment Work?

Antiretroviral therapy works by blocking the multiplication of HIV in the cells. In most cases, patients must take at least three antiretroviral drugs for the therapy to work. In addition, a very important part of antiretroviral therapy is that the medications must be taken 100 percent of the time.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. Patients taking antiretroviral therapy must be committed to taking 100 percent of their medications. Taking medications incorrectly can lead to the development of viral resistance. Once the virus becomes resistant to certain medications, those drugs will never work against the virus again. Patients should do everything possible to prevent the development of viral resistance.

When antiretroviral therapy is taken correctly, the patient's viral load becomes undetectable. This means that, although HIV is still present in the blood, it is in very low amounts, below the ability of blood tests to detect it. When the virus is undetectable, we say that it is "suppressed." The goal of HIV therapy is to get virus levels undetectable, because when the virus is undetectable, HIV disease progression slows or stops completely.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Nov 2000

Last Modified: 12 Aug 2015