What is Antiretroviral Therapy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Anatomical model of the human body
Anatomical model of the human body

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is normally spoken of in context of treating HIV/AIDS. This type of treatment may be individualized to each patient and consists of using several different drugs that have means of interrupting the HIV virus at various points in its lifecycle. Typically antiretroviral therapy means taking at least three medications that will attack HIV when it is in different stages, and these combinations of medicines make it much harder for HIV to successfully fight back or survive.

This does not mean that antiretroviral therapy cures HIV/AIDS. ART can be extremely useful in diminishing potential effects of the virus and may help some avoid accumulation of damage from infection. It often makes people healthier, but it cannot cure AIDS. On the other hand, one thing that ART may do is prevent mother to fetus transmission of HIV. Prior to its use in this manner, babies born to infected mothers were often routinely infected. With ART, rate of infection from mother to child is sharply reduced.

There are many different type of drugs that could be used as a part of antiretroviral therapy, and there are new ones being developed. Many people’s drug regimens are not identical, but some are similar enough that drug manufacturers may now routinely put several medicines together in the same pill. This has been hailed as a significant improvement, since otherwise people could take dozens or more pills each day. Any time the process can be simplified, there is better chance of compliance.

Regularly taking whatever prescribed medications are recommended is of great importance. ART loses its effectiveness if people routinely forget medications, especially for a day or more. The fight against HIV with drugs is a constant battle; medications have to be introduced into the system at all times to keep the virus from spreading or its ability to fight medicines extremely low. Forgetting to take pills may allow HIV to become more aggressive, though sometimes doctors recommend a break of a day or more from meds as part of antiretroviral therapy.

In most cases though, medication regimen must be followed to the letter for best chance of fighting the virus, though when medication is first initiated may vary based on health of the patient, patient choice, and drug availability. The point at which HIV develops into AIDS might be when antiretroviral therapy is initiated in countries where supplies to treat AIDS are minimal. It may be started much sooner in areas where access to drugs is greater.

Despite its potential benefit in slowing down HIV, antiretroviral therapy can be difficult to undergo. A number of noted side effects may occur including hair loss, stomach upset, headaches, changes in mood, changes in sight, confusion, dry mouth, disturbances in sleep and many others. Side effects vary by medication and each person’s reaction to each med, and this means it’s hard to predict reactions to ART, given the wide number of drugs that might used. Medication regimen may change too, depending on a person’s reactions. If a patient's health changes for the worse or side effects are severe, doctors might suggest other drugs that could be more effective.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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    • Anatomical model of the human body
      Anatomical model of the human body