HIV treatment looks pretty simple at first:
- Your doctor writes you a prescription.
- A pharmacist gives you some pills.
- You take the pills every day, following your doctor’s directions exactly.
- The pills fight HIV, defending your immune system.
- You stay healthy.
Nothing to it, right?
Well, there is more. It turns out it’s not so easy to follow all these directions every day for the rest of your life.
Scientists say the problem is adherence. “Adhere” means “to stick” (you know, like glue). It’s tougher than you might think to stick to your HIV treatments.
If you want to protect yourself from HIV, you’ll need to commit yourself to the idea of fighting HIV every day. And then you have to stand by your commitment. It’s like making a promise — to yourself and everybody who cares about you.
If you know more about how HIV treatment works, it’ll be easier to stick with your treatment plan.
HIV treatments: The basics
HIV is called a retrovirus. So, the treatment for HIV is called anti-retroviral therapy (ART).
HIV attacks immune system cells called t-helpers, or CD4 cells. Anti-retroviral medications give CD4 cells a shield that defends against HIV attacks.
HIV needs to get inside the CD4 cells to reproduce. If HIV can’t reproduce, it starts to die out — but not entirely.
Even when your HIV treatment works correctly, a few copies of the virus survive by going into hiding. It’s kinda like a bear hibernating in the winter, waiting for better weather to come back.
If you stop taking your HIV meds, the virus wakes up and starts causing trouble again.
With no meds to get in its way, HIV gets busy invading and killing your CD4 cells again. Eventually, HIV makes your immune system so weak that it can’t fight diseases anymore.
HIV and mutations
Your immune system is tough as nails when you’re healthy. It usually takes HIV five to 10 years to wear your immune system down to the point where you have AIDS.
So, you might think, “Where’s the harm in missing my meds for a day or two?”
The truth is, people taking ART do miss taking their meds — because life gets in the way of their plans. Missing a few days here and there over the course of years might not cause much trouble.
So, why do the doctors insist on taking ART every single day?
Because HIV will make billions of copies of itself if you don’t fight it. And the more copies it makes, the more opportunities it has to mutate into something HIV meds can’t fight.
Mutations are bad because they happen at random and nobody knows what form they’ll take. They could be as harmless as a butterfly, or as terrible as an atomic bomb. Or somewhere in the middle. There’s no way to know.
Long story short: Skipping your treatments raises the risk of mutations. And that’s not something anybody wants.
How HIV treatments work
Doctors usually prescribe two or more HIV-fighting medications to attack the virus. You may be able to take multiple meds in a single pill, but you also might have to take multiple pills.
The medications work for about a day, then you have to take a new batch. You might have to take them at a certain time of day, and coordinate with your meals.
Pills, like food, have to be digested. And the amount of food in your stomach influences how fast your HIV meds get into the body. This is the reason why it’s best to follow your doctor’s directions on whether to take your meds before or after eating.
Helping yourself remember to take your meds
People who take medications every day often buy little plastic pill containers with each day of the week marked on them.
When they get a new prescription, they divide the pills into the daily compartments in their container to make sure they take the right amount every day.
You can also find reminder apps for your smartphone, or you can tape a note to your refrigerator or the back side of the door going out of your house.
Everybody forgets things. If you have a plan to jolt your memory, you’ll do a better job of staying on your HIV meds.
What about side effects?
HIV meds do have side effects, but they usually go away after a few weeks.
When you get your prescription, talk to your doctor about side effects. Some people get diarrhea, appetite loss, or fatigue, for instance, but everybody responds to the meds differently.
Your HIV meds also might react with other medications you take. Most side effects cause minor problems, but some can be more severe. You and your doctor should talk over any reactions to the meds you experience.
Don’t let side effects discourage you from taking your meds. Doctors now have 20 or more anti-retrovirals to choose from, so there’s a good chance they can find a combination that reduces or even eliminates your side effects.
Paying for HIV meds
Many HIV medications are expensive. But there are many programs to help you pay for your meds. Talk to the caseworker at your HIV clinic to get more guidance on these programs.
Some drug manufacturers offer discounts to low-income people. And the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program helps people pay for their meds.
Don’t let lack of money discourage you. Lots of people like you are in the same situation and these programs are out there to help. You just have to work through the programs and figure out how they work.
It’s your life. You’re worth the effort.
Some people have diabetes or high blood pressure. As long as they take their medications every day, they’re fine. If they don’t, however, things take a turn for the worse.
HIV has a lot of stigma and stereotypes that don’t do anybody any good. Worst of all, these negative outlooks on HIV discourage people from getting tested and treated. And people who skip tests and treatment just infect more people with HIV.
We can’t cure HIV completely, but we can defeat it. That starts with believing each of us has a life worth living to the fullest.
Getting into treatment and staying on your meds is the best way to make that happen.
You’re the boss of your body. If you have a question or concern please contact us for information about STI testing and treatment or other health services.
HIV walk-in testing hours:
Mon – Thurs 1 pm – 7 pm
HIV Services (216) 707-3448
STI walk-in medical testing:
Wed 11 am – 3:30 pm
Thurs 9 am – 11:30 am
PrEP or STI medical testing by appointment:
Circle Health Services
12201 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44106