There is no cure for HIV, but treatment can help people stay healthy for many years. In fact, it is estimated that with early diagnosis and proper care and treatment, many people living with HIV can expect to live a normal life-span. With access to treatment and other healthy lifestyle choices, HIV is not a “death sentence” as some people may antiretroviral drugs think.

Although there is no cure, HIV can be treated successfully with anti-HIV medications. With daily and continuous treatment the virus is well controlled inside the body and wellness, quality of life and life expectancy are significantly improved. The current standard in HIV treatment is a combination of at least 3 different classes of medications that work together to stop HIV’s ability to replicate and damage the immune system. Some common terms for HIV treatment include ARVs (antiretrovirals), ART (antiretroviral therapy), HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) or CAART (combination antiretroviral therapy).

Hiv treatment side effects

HIV treatment can cause uncomfortable and serious side effects for some people. Treatment is individualized and different people will have different experiences with their treatment. Some side effects may be short term and only last the first 2 to 6 weeks after starting treatment (nausea, headaches and dizziness for example), while others may cause long-term changes that can take years to develop or be noticeable. Debilitating side effects have been experienced with some classes of HIV medication. Fortunately, many of the newer medications cause much fewer side effects for many people.

The decision to start HIV treatment should always be made in consultation with a medical doctor. When HIV treatment is started, it is very important that people take their medications as prescribed and do not skip doses or take unsupervised “breaks” from their treatment schedule. When treatment is interrupted in this way, there is concern that the virus will begin replicating quickly and may become resistant to the medication. If resistant virus develops, that type of medication will stop working. When working with a doctor to determine when and how to start HIV treatment, resistance should be discussed and considered carefully.

HIV treatment works

HIV treatment works by controlling the amount of virus in the body so the immune system can stay healthy. In addition to medications, many people living with HIV find their overall health is improved or maintained by making other healthy lifestyle choices including good nutrition, exercise, reducing or eliminating drug and alcohol use, and managing stress. When you are beginning treatment for HIV, you may need other services and/or support. During your initial few visits your healthcare provider or case manager may ask you if you need access to the following:

  • Housing
  • Supportive care and in-home health care
  • Mental health care
  • Food assistance
  • Support groups
  • Activity groups
  • Pharmacy-assisted medication management programs

It’s possible that you will have to complete additional forms or show that you meet eligibility requirements to get access to these programs. Talk with your provider to determine which programs may be right for you.

Finding an HIV/AIDS Doctor

Finding the right HIV/AIDS doctor for you is one of the most important health care decisions you will make. This person will work closely with you, guiding you through many treatment decisions. Although it’s important to seek care as soon as possible, don’t rush into making a choice. Here are some things to consider.

If you already have a primary care physician with whom you feel comfortable, find out if this person also has the skills and experience to be your HIV/AIDS doctor. If not, they can refer you to a specialist. If you need to find a new HIV/AIDS doctor, and don’t know where to begin, here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • Ask a trusted friend to recommend a few doctors.
  • Contact a local HIV/AIDS organization for the names of several doctors.
  •  Search online for HIV/AIDS doctors near you.
  • Ask for a referral to a doctor with AIDS experience if you belong to an HMO.
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