Getting a diagnosis for any disease is not easy, especially when it’s about one which has no cure and requires that you take medication for the rest of your life. HIV is no different than any other disease, the only advantage, perhaps, is that treatment is free and accessible in most countries in the region; also, there exist a lot of clinics, information, resources and associations that can help you lead your treatment successfully and be able to have a long, healthy and full life.
But then, a question many have on their mind comes up: “why take medications for life, if I’m not going to get cured? And, what do they help me with? What happens if I already feel fine? And, what if I can’t handle the side effects?” Among many others.
In this article, we provide a general overview of the importance of HIV treatment and some advice to achieve adherence. If you need more information, visit our resource section or our clinic and Wellness Center directory in Latin America and the Caribbean for personalized attention.
What is HIV treatment?
Medication against HIV is called antiretroviral therapy (also known as ART). As we mentioned earlier, there isn’t a cure for HIV. But with the proper medical attention and by taking these medications, HIV can be controlled.
Currently, thanks to scientific advancements, antiretroviral therapy is just one pill a day. In most of the treatment schemes and with most of the people who precisely follow their doctor’s prescription, the virus is able to be controlled in a three to six months’ period of time. But remember that taking medications against HIV does not prevent transmission of other sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies, so you must continue using a condom in all of your sexual relations.
What are the benefits of taking medication against HIV?
Treatment reduces the amount of HIV in the blood, this is what’s known as viral load. Medications against HIV can make the viral load be so low that a test would not be able to detect it (which is known as undetectable). If your viral load goes down after starting treatment, this means that it’s working and you must continue taking it. If you suspend it at that moment, you are giving HIV the opportunity to rapidly multiply. This could weaken your immune system and make you sick. An undetectable viral load is the best way to stay healthy and protect others.
When should I start treatment?
As soon as possible after being diagnosed. Medications against HIV are recommended for all people with HIV, regardless of how long they’ve had the virus or how healthy they are. What happens if you delay starting the treatment? HIV will continue to damage your immune system. This puts you at greater risk of transmitting the virus to your sexual partners or anybody you share syringes with.
If I have already achieved an undetectable viral load, can I suspend the treatment?
As we mentioned before, the virus can rapidly multiply and affect your immune system. Remember that medications only control the virus, therefore if you suspend it, you allow it to attack your immune system, weaken you and make you sick.
Another important point and like any other medication, if you suspend it, you develop resistance. Resistance to medications happens when people are not consistently taking their medications as prescribed. The virus may change (mutate) and will not respond to certain medications. If you develop resistance to medications, you limit your options for successful treatment; and the HIV strains resistant to medications may be transmitted to other people.
Tips to continue with your treatment
Sticking to a plan, regimen or treatment may be difficult. It’s important that you talk to your doctor, counselor or health professional to try to identify the reasons why you cannot follow medical treatment. Some examples may be: problems to take pills, side effects from the treatment or simply treatment fatigue.
An easy and successful way of not forgetting it is to plan ahead and take additional medications with you. Whether it be that your job keeps you very busy, family or traveling outside your home or country, it may be easy to forget taking your pills. The ideal thing is to bring additional medications with you and keep an inventory of how many doses are left. If you have a smartphone you can set digital reminders or write it all down in a small notepad or planner that you carry with you always. Remember that if you are going to travel or go abroad, always try to keep enough medication for three months.
Don’t be afraid to seek help or talk to someone regarding mental health or substance abuse. Like we said, receiving a diagnosis from any disease is not easy. How you may feel mentally and physically can affect your will to adhere to your treatment plan. Just as consuming substances can interfere with your ability to remain healthy.
If you need help to control the use of alcohol, drugs or are experiencing anxiety or depression, derived from your HIV diagnosis, contact AHF in your country in order to receive counseling and help.
**Information obtained from: