HIV and AIDS can be treated through various medications and drugs. Because HIV causes AIDS, treatment for HIV is generally the same as AIDS treatment. HIV medications are used to combat the virus by either preventing it from copying itself or by blocking its access to cells. HIV AIDS treatments may also include medications to help deal with any opportunistic infections you may have become infected with. Currently, there is neither an AIDS cure nor an HIV cure.
There are four different groups of antiretroviral drugs used to deal with HIV/AIDS. The first group of medications are known as nucleoside reverse transcriptase (RT) inhibitors and aim to interrupt the virus' ability to copy itself. Using these drugs should help reduce the amount of infection in your system, ideally to undetectable levels, while increasing your CD4 cell count.
Nucleoside RT inhibitors attempt to interrupt the HIV from copying itself during the early stages of the process. Nucleoside analog medications for HIV include AZT (Azidothymidine); ddC (zalcitabine); ddl (dideoxyinosine); d4T (stavudine) and Abacavir (ziagen) among others.
Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors also slow down the replication process during the early stages of HIV copying. This group of HIV medication includes Delavridine (Rescriptor); Nevirapine (Viramune) and Efravirenz (Sustiva).
The third group of AIDS and HIV treatment is known as protease inhibitors. Like nucleoside RT inhibitors, protease inhibitors attempt to interrupt the reproduction of the virus. However, these drugs do so at a later stage of the HIV life cycle. Some of the drugs that fall into this group include Ritonavir (Norvir), Saquinivir (Invirase), and Amprenivir (Agenerase).
The final group of drugs currently only has one drug (Fuzeon) approved for use. This group is known as fusion inhibitors and work by stopping the virus from entering your CD4 cells thereby preventing the joining of the virus with the cell membranes. This type of treatment should be used in conjunction with another form of treatment.
Which group of drugs is best varies from person to person. Discuss with your health care provider which you should use.
When Should You Start HIV Treatments?
It is difficult to know exactly when an individual should begin taking medication for their HIV. Unlike other infections, starting treatment early on is not necessarily beneficial. However, waiting until your HIV infection has progressed to late-stage HIV may also not be ideal. Depending on the state of your immune system, some people may be better off to prolong starting antiretroviral treatment while others may benefit from starting early.
If you are HIV positive, it is important to work closely and talk openly with your health care provider. Because HIV symptoms are often not noticeable until the infection has really advanced, regular monitoring of your immune system can help determine just how much of your system the infection has taken over. Regular CD4 tests (which indicate how many cells per cubic millimeter are in your blood) can give valuable insight as to the state of your immune system. The lower the CD4 cell count, the more reason you have to start drug therapy since your immune system is weakening.
Alternatively, you can also have regular viral load tests. These tests indicate just how much of the virus is in your system. Depending on the amount (whether it is low, medium or high), you may be advised to start or hold off on treatment.
Some people with an HIV infection choose to compliment their drug treatment with alternative therapies. Although these treatments do not combat the virus itself, they can help you to feel better about yourself, improve your immune system, reduce your stress levels and alleviate side effects. Some of these alternative therapies include acupressure, massage and vitamins.
Committing to a Regime
Taking HIV medications requires a large commitment on your part. There is no cure for HIV so once treatment is started, it needs to be continued for the rest of your life. Additionally, your medications need to be taken according to a strict timetable anywhere from one to three times a day. Some drugs need to be refrigerated while others have side effects.
Once you have started treatment, regular testing will still be necessary to make sure your viral load is decreasing while your CD4 count is increasing. If this does not happen, or if your viral load begins to increase after a period of effective treatment, it may indicate that your drug regime is failing or that your infection is starting to become resistant to treatment. Changing your drug regime may be necessary.
AIDS and HIV Resistance to Drugs
Overtime, some people taking treatment for AIDS or HIV may develop a resistance to the drugs they are using. This occurs because the HIV virus reproduces itself in your system, often mutating in the process. Since mutations of the HIV strain's DNA occasionally occur in areas that the drugs target, the virus becomes resistant and is able to copy itself unhindered.
While changing your drug regime can help, it is possible for you to become resistant to an entire group of drugs. To reduce the likelihood of your body becoming resistant to HIV medications, it is necessary to take your drugs on time and every day. By doing this, the virus does not have a chance to copy itself.
It is also possible for you to be infected with a strain of HIV that is already resistant to certain drugs or an entire drug group. This will limit your treatment possibilities.
Treatment Side Effects
Like many other types of medications, HIV treatment often causes unwanted side effects in users. In general, the most common side effects include nausea, fatigue and diarrhea. However, some side effects may severely limit your daily activities, require hospitalization or even be life threatening, although this is rare.
Common side effects in those using nucleoside RT inhibitors include a decrease in red or white blood cells and possibly an inflamed pancreas or nerve damage. Protease inhibitors user often experience nausea, diarrhea as well as other gastrointestinal problems. The drug may also interact with other drugs causing an allergic reaction. Using Fuzeon has also been known to cause an allergic reaction as well pneumonia, low blood pressure
, vomiting, fever or chills, rash and difficulties breathing.
Most people find that their body adjusts to the drugs after a period of time causing their side effects to subside. Those who don't find any relief from their side effects may want to discuss the issue with their health care provider, especially if the side effects are so severe that they make it difficult for you to follow your drug regime. Changing your HIV treatment may help reduce the severity of your side effects and make it easier to take your medications. It is important to note, though, that repeated changes to your medication combinations can actually increase the likelihood that your body will develop a resistance.
While HIV treatments have come a long way over the years, they still leave much to be desired at least as far as side effects are concerned. Currently, researchers are looking for new ways of treating HIV and AIDS as well trying to create an HIV vaccine.