Treating HIV With Antiretroviral Therapy Drugs

Treating HIV With Antiretroviral Therapy Drugs

Learn how antiretroviral therapy drugs, or ART drugs, help control progression and prevent the transmission of HIV.

Commonly referred to as HIV, human immunodeficiency virus is a chronic viral infection that targets the body’s immune system, making those infected with the virus susceptible to infections and some types of cancer. Untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS, or “acquired immune deficiency syndrome,” where the body has little immunological defense against a wide variety of opportunistic infections.

The prognosis for people infected with HIV is much better than it was in previous decades, thanks to a better understanding of the virus, better screening methods and better treatments. While there is no cure for HIV, the disease can be managed with treatment, and it is not inevitable that a person with HIV will develop AIDS. With early diagnosis, the right treatment and the right precautions, many people who have HIV are able to have near-normal lifespans.

Antiretroviral therapy
The treatment for HIV infection is called antiretroviral therapy, often abbreviated as ART. There are a number of different types of ART drugs available, which disrupt the lifecycle of the HIV virus in different ways, preventing the virus from reproducing. This enables the immune system to remain strong. It also reduces the risk of the disease progressing into AIDS, reduces the risk of dying from complications of the infection, and prevents HIV from being transmitted to other people (though it does not eliminate the risk entirely).

People receiving treatment for HIV are typically given a combination of several different ART drugs. A combination of ART drugs is called a regimen, and there are many different possible regimens that can be used. The backbone of most regimens are typically drugs called NRTIs (nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors). They drugs are sometimes called “nukes.” NRTIs were the first drugs used to treat HIV, and have been in use since 1987. They work by blocking an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which HIV depends on to make copies of itself, and are very effective at disrupting the lifecycle of the virus.

A typical regimen for HIV typically includes two NRTIs as well as one or more other drugs, some of which are available as a single combination drug:

  • INSTIs (integrase strand transfer inhibitors)
  • NNRTIs (non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors)
  • PIs (protease inhibitors)
  • Integrase inhibitors
  • Fusion inhibitors
  • CCR5 antagonists
  • Post-attachment inhibitors
  • Pharmacokinetic enhancers

There is no regimen that is best, only regimens that are best for a particular patient. Deciding on what therapies to use and when to start treatment is a decision that must be made under the guidance of a healthcare provider. These drugs will be taken every day for the rest of a person’s life, and must be used consistently—stopping treatment, or even taking drugs at inconsistent times, carries a risk of developing drug resistance, which means the drugs will become ineffective at treating HIV.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with HIV, it is important to see a healthcare provider and begin treatment as soon as possible. The keys to successfully living with HIV are working with a healthcare provider experienced in treating the virus, taking the right precautions, and being diligent with monitoring and treatment.

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