In the decades since the discovery of HIV, treatments have
become increasingly more effective. Using combined antiretroviral therapy
(cART) it’s generally possible to reduce the amount of HIV in the blood to
undetectable levels. This does not mean that HIV has been eliminated from the
body. However, it does prevent HIV from reproducing and causing the usually
fatal complications that used to be unavoidable.
Combined antiretroviral therapy is also known as highly active
antiretroviral therapy (HAART). It uses combinations of different types of HIV
drugs to effectively treat HIV. Usually at least three different drugs are used
from at least two different classes. This helps to stop HIV replication and prevent
drug resistance. When the virus
becomes resistant to a drug, it’s no longer an effective form of treatment. When
HIV becomes resistant to one drug, it can sometimes become resistant to the entire
class of drugs.
Classes of HIV Drugs
There are currently five classes of HIV drugs. These are defined
by how they affect the virus.
Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs)
These drugs affect the action of reverse transcriptase. Reverse transcriptase is the enzyme that copies
HIV’s genetic material (RNA) into a different type of genetic material. This is
necessary for the virus to make copies of itself. NRTIs are also known as “nucs.”
NRTIs block the action of reverse transcriptase by serving as
faulty building blocks in viral DNA production. They don’t stop the enzyme from
trying to make new copies, they simply disrupt those new copies.
Examples of NRTIs include:
and tenofovir (Truvada)
and zidovudine (Combivir)
This class of drugs is associated with rare but sometimes severe
side effects in long-term use. Some scientists think that a “nuc-sparing”
treatment regimen may reduce serious side effects. This viewpoint is still controversial.
Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs)
These drugs also affect reverse transcriptase. However, they act
directly on the enzyme’s ability replicate. They are also known as “non-nucs.”
Examples of NNRTIs include:
Protease Inhibitors (PIs)
Protease is an enzyme made by HIV. It chops HIV proteins into
pieces. These pieces are used to construct new copies of HIV.
Protease inhibitors work by blocking the function of protease.
This helps stop the formation of new copies of functional virus. Viruses made
when PIs are present are usually defective and cannot infect new cells.
Examples of protease inhibitors include:
Cell Entry Inhibitors
Entry inhibitors prevent HIV from getting into cells. This keeps
HIV from using the cellular machinery to make copies of itself.
One specific type of entry inhibitor is a fusion inhibitor. In
order for HIV to get into its target cells, it needs to bind to those cells and
then fuse with the membrane of the target cell. These drugs attempt to prevent
the virus from even binding to a CD4 cell. Examples of entry inhibitors include
enfuvirtide (Fuzeon) and maraviroc (Selzentry).
Integrase is an enzyme that allows HIV to insert its genome into
cellular DNA. Integrase inhibitors block this process. This prevents HIV from
making new copies of itself. One example of an integrase inhibitors is raltegravir
Single Pill Regimens for HIV Treatment
Certain combinations of HIV drugs are available in single pill regimens. A single pill
regimen combines at least three different drugs into a pill taken only once a
day. These may be easier to take than other combinations of antiretroviral
drugs. This is mainly because people only need to remember to take a single
pill every day.
Four single pill regimens have been approved for use in the
United States. They are:
which contains emtricitabine, tenofovir, and efavirenz
which contains emtricitabine, tenofovir, and rilpivirine
which contains elvitegravir, cobicistat, tenofovir, and emtricitabine
which contains dolutegravir, abacavir, and lamivudine
Treatments to Prevent HIV
In addition to using antiretroviral therapy (ART) to treat HIV,
it can also be used to prevent it. This is known as prophylaxis. There are two
types of HIV prophylaxis.
(PeP) provides ART to people who have been exposed to HIV. For example, it may
be given to a health care provider after a needle stick. It reduces the chance
of an infection occurring after a known exposure.
(PreP) provides ART to people who might be exposed to HIV. It can reduce their
chance of becoming infected if an exposure occurs. However, PrEP is highly
There is also data to suggest that treating a
person with HIV can help prevent them from passing on the virus. This is known
as treatment as prevention
(TasP). ART has been used to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV for
many years. The use of TasP to prevent sexual transmission is a more recent
Staying Healthy with HIV
HIV and its treatments may cause side effects. They can also affect
the health of various organ systems.
These effects can often be treated with medication. People with HIV
might need medications for:
In addition, people with AIDS may need treatment for opportunistic infections. People with
healthy immune systems can be exposed to a variety of viruses, fungi, bacteria,
and parasites without experiencing adverse symptoms. Those with HIV or AIDS are
more susceptible to infection and illness due to a weakened immune system.
These infections are called “opportunistic” because they take advantage of the
weakened immune system and can cause a variety of debilitating illnesses. Appropriate
treatment depends on what illnesses are present.
With treatment, people with HIV can live long, full lives. That
means they’re susceptible to the same conditions of aging as everyone else.
Preventive healthcare is even more important for people with HIV than it is for
everyone else. If you have HIV, it’s also a good idea to eat well, exercise,
and avoid modifiable risk factors such as: