What should I know about my HIV medicines?
Medicines that are used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are also referred to as HAART. This stands for "highly active antiretroviral therapy" (say: an-tee-ret-ro-vi-rull). If you have HIV, HAART will not cure you. However, it can help you fight off infections and live a longer life.
HIV attacks your body by entering cells and copying itself. As the amount of virus in your body (called the viral load) increases, you get sick because your body has a hard time fighting off infections. HAART helps you feel better by keeping your viral load low. The lower your viral load is, the longer you can stay healthy. The goal of therapy is to get your viral load so low that it can't be measured by blood tests. But it’s important to remember that even when your viral load is this low, you can still pass HIV to other people.
Why is it so important to take my medicine correctly?
HAART can work very well if you take the medicines the right way. But if you don't take your medicines just the way your doctor tells you to, your HIV might not be exposed to enough medicine to control it. If this happens, the HIV becomes resistant, and the medicines stop working. Resistance to HAART medicines can be permanent.
There are not many kinds of medicine that can be used to treat HIV. So if your HIV becomes resistant, you can run out of ways to treat it.
Do I need to take all of my medicine?
People taking HAART need to take many pills at different times of the day. It can be hard to remember, but you must take at least 95% of your pills. For example, if your doctor has prescribed 15 pills per day, you shouldn’t miss more than 5 pills per week.
Some people put their pills in a daily pillbox and use alarms to remind themselves to take their medicines.
Do I have to eat or drink something when I take my medicine?
Some medicines must be taken with food. Others must be taken on an empty stomach. Check with your doctor and pharmacist about your particular medicines.
Some people who take indinavir get kidney stones. If your doctor wants you to take this medicine, you should drink at least 10 cups of water per day to help prevent kidney stones.
Grapefruit juice can affect the way some medicines work. Ask your doctor if it's okay for you to drink it. Also, ask your doctor if it's safe for you to have alcoholic drinks.
Is it safe to take HAART with other medicines or with herbal products?
HAART can be dangerous if you take it with certain medicines or herbs. These include medicines for high cholesterol, heart or blood problems, tuberculosis infection, migraine headaches, anxiety and insomnia.
For example, some prescription medicines and herbal products can make your body push the HAART medicines through too fast, before they have time to work. St. John's wort, which some people use to treat depression, and garlic pills can make the level of HAART in your body drop too low to be helpful.
Tell your doctor about every other medicine you take. This includes all prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines and herbal products.
Can my medicines cause side effects?
Like most other medicines, HAART can cause side effects. Your doctor will talk to you about what side effects your particular medicine might cause.
Serious reactions usually occur in the first few weeks of therapy. You should call your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Constant thirst
- Frequent need to urinate
- Long-lasting groin pain (the groin is the area between the stomach and the thigh)
- Feeling bloated
- Abdominal pain, especially pain that gets worse after eating
Even when you are feeling well, your doctor might do laboratory tests to make sure you are not having side effects from your medicine.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff