March 25, 2021
3 min. read

Antiretroviral Therapy Explained


No cure currently exists for AIDs, but strict adherence to what is called antiretroviral therapy, or ART, can dramatically slow the disease’s progress, prevent secondary infections and complications, and prolong life. ART is recommended for all people living with HIV, regardless of how long you’ve had the virus or how healthy you are. ART must be taken every day, exactly as your provider prescribes. To find out more about antiretroviral therapy, read our blog post below.

What is antiretroviral therapy?

Antiretroviral therapy refers to any HIV treatment that uses a combination of two or more drugs. Your healthcare provider may choose to prescribe a combination of three or more drugs in order to improve your treatment’s chances of succeeding.

patient provider

How do antiretroviral treatments work?

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, attacks and destroys the infection-fighting CD4 cells of the immune system. The loss of these CD4 cells makes it hard for the body to fight off infections and certain HIV-related cancers.

Antiretroviral therapies prevent HIV from making copies of itself, which reduces the amount of HIV in the body, known as the viral load. Having less HIV in the body gives the immune system the chance to recover and produce more CD4 cells, so the immune system is strong enough to fight off infections and certain HIV-related cancers.

Antiretroviral therapies, by reducing the amount of HIV in the body, also reduce the risk of HIV transmission. If your viral load is lowered to what is called an undetectable level, this means that the level of HIV in the blood is too low to be detected by a viral load test. People with HIV who maintain an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to their HIV-negative partners through sex.

ART side effects

What are the side effects of antiretroviral therapy?

Antiretroviral drugs can have adverse side effects, though most are manageable. Newer drugs tend to cause fewer and less severe side effects. It’s important to remember, however, that the benefits of taking HIV medications typically outweigh the side effects. These treatments can help people live long, healthy lives with reduced risks of HIV-related complications and transmission.

Some side effects from antiretroviral therapy, such as nausea or fatigue, may last only a few days or weeks. Other side effects, such as high cholesterol, may not appear for a few months or years.

Some other possible side effects of antiretroviral therapy include:

  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping
  • dry mouth
  • rash
  • dizziness
  • pain


Some long-term side effects may include:

  • depression
  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • insomnia
  • kidney damage
  • liver damage
  • nerve damage
  • weak bones, or osteoporosis
  • higher levels of fat in the blood

Side effects that indicate a more serious complication and may require urgent care include:

  • extreme fatigue
  • nausea
  • fever
  • persistent vomiting
  • rash

Your provider can give advice and other forms of support to people experiencing side effects from HIV treatment. If the symptoms are severe or ongoing, they may recommend alternative medications. Make sure to discuss your lifestyle, needs, preferences, and current health status with your provider, who can take these into account when prescribing a treatment plan.

Sources Medical News Today Healthline

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