HIV/AIDS Drugs

Written by Valencia Higuera | Published on October 29, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on October 29, 2014

HIV/AIDS Drugs Overview

HIV/AIDS is a serious lifelong disease that affects approximately 1.1 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

HIV is a type of infection that weakens the immune system. As a sexually transmitted disease, it can spread from person to person through contact with semen or vaginal secretions. Having unprotected sex with an infected partner is one way to become infected with the virus. The virus can also spread through contact with infected blood. So, having a blood transfusion and sharing needles with an infected person increases your risk. The blood supply is carefully screened for possible infectious agents like viruses.  Transfusion remains a way to be infected, but it’s very unlikely to contract HIV through a blood transfusion today.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for HIV. If left untreated, the virus can progress and develop into AIDS in about 10 years on average, according to the Mayo Clinic. Howver, even if you're infected with the virus, it's possible to live an active, symptom-free life. The key is receiving an early diagnosis and getting treatment to stop the virus from multiplying.

If you think you've been exposed to HIV, a blood test can check your blood for HIV antibodies or a protein created by the virus. Testing is the one way to know whether you've been infected with the virus. HIV may cause few or no symptoms in the early stages. Talk to your doctor or local clinic about testing and possible treatment options.

HIV/AIDS Medications

An HIV diagnosis may be devastating and frightening, but you can enjoy a longer, healthier life with treatment. If you are infected by HIV, you will probably have to take antiretroviral therapy (ART) for the rest of your life.

Currently, there are five classes of drugs approved for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. These medications interfere with specific parts of the HIV life cycle. These drugs don’t destroy the virus, but they can slow the progression of HIV and delay or even prevent an AIDS diagnosis.

Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NRTIs)

This was the first class of drugs available for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. These powerful medications block reverse transcriptase, which is an enzyme that replicates the genetic material of viruses such as HIV. Blocking this enzyme stops HIV from making copies of its genetic material (RNA). Drugs within this class include:

  • abacavir (Ziagen)
  • didanosine (Videx)
  • emtricitabine (Emtriva)
  • lamivudine (Epivir)
  • stavudine (Zerit)
  • tenofovir disoproxil (Viread)
  • zidovudine (Retrovir)

Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors (NNRTIs)

Drugs in this class also block reverse transcriptase action. They do this by attaching to and modifying this enzyme in a way different than the NRTIs. The end result is the same, which stops HIV from replicating its genetic material. NNRTI drugs include:

  • delavirdine (Rescriptor)
  • efavirenz (Sustiva)
  • etravirine (Intelence)
  • nevirapine (Viramune)
  • rilpivirine (Edurant)

Protease Inhibitors (PIs)

These medications block HIV-protease, which is a critical enzyme for the production of new copies of HIV. Taking this drug stops HIV from multiplying and reduces the level of virus in your blood. Protease inhibitor medications include:

  • atazanavir (Reyataz)
  • darunavir (Prezista)
  • fosamprenavir (Lexiva)
  • indinavir (Crixivan)
  • nelfinavir (Viracept)
  • ritonavir (Norvir)
  • saquinavir (Invirase)
  • tipranavir (Aptivus)

Fusion and Entry Inhibitors

These classes of antiviral medication stop HIV from entering healthy CD4 cells, which are both important cells for normal immune function in the body as well as the primary target cells for HIV infection. These drugs include enfuviritide (Fuzeon) and maraviroc (Selzentry).

Integrase Inhibitors

One of the newer classes of antiviral drugs used for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, these medications block HIV-integrase, an enzyme that inserts the genetic material of HIV into the DNA of the infected cell. This stops the virus from multiplying and spreading to other cells. These drugs include dolutegravir (Tivicay) and raltegravir (Isentress).

HIV/AIDS Medication Risks

Just about every medication has risks or side effects. Antiviral medications that treat HIV/AIDS are no exception. Side effects of these drugs vary by person and depend on the type of medication. Common side effects may include:

  • headaches
  • occasional dizziness
  • diarrhea
  • tiredness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • liver injury
  • nerve pain
  • kidney damage
  • skin rash
  • anemia

Some side effects are temporary and gradually go away. You may experience long-term side effects like a decrease in bone density or abnormal blood sugar levels.

Drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS may also interfere with medicines taken for other health conditions, thus either reducing the drugs’ effectiveness or causing an entirely unwanted side effect.

One of the major problems with HIV medications is that some people eventually develop strains of HIV that are resistant to one or more of the antiretroviral drugs. A way to reduce the risk of this occurring is giving the drugs in combinations of three or more. These combinations help stop HIV’s ability to replicate and decrease the likelihood that the virus will become resistant. It’s important that HIV patients always take all of their antiviral medications on schedule, every day.  Failure to do so may lead to the development of resistance. Sometimes the virus will become resistant to an entire category of drug, not just one of those you had been taking.

Treatment for HIV has made enormous strides over the past 30 years. However, it remains complex and requires much attention from people undergoing the treatment and their doctors. HIV is controllable with current therapies, but it is not curable. This means that despite treatment, HIV may eventually continue to multiply and progress to AIDS.

HIV/AID Medication Conclusion

In order to control HIV and stop the virus from multiplying, your doctor may prescribe a combination of antiviral medications. It’s important that you follow your doctor's treatment plan and take medication as prescribed.

You’ll also need to complete follow-up testing as recommended by your doctor. This will include testing the number of T cells in your blood (CD4 count) and the amount of virus in your blood (viral load). These numbers let your doctor know whether medication is working to suppress the virus. 

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