HIV guide

HIV treatment

Is there a cure or treatment for HIV?

Yes. Once you've been tested and diagnosed with HIV, multi-drug regimens can control its symptoms and suppress its replication and damage to the immune system. While HIV is not curable, it can be treated and managed with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) to maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible...most people start treatment as soon as they test positive to stave off HIV signs, symptoms and complications.

A combination of drugs can be used to control the virus. The classes of HIV medications are:

  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  • Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
  • Protease inhibitors
  • Entry inhibitors (e.g., Maraviroc)
  • Fusion inhibitors (e.g., Fuzeon)
  • Integrase inhibitors

Viral loads and CD4 counts

Response to treatment is measured by viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) and CD4 counts (the number of white blood cells that fight infection). Viral loads are typically tested every three to four months during therapy, and CD4 counts are generally checked every three to six months.

Ideally, HIV treatment reduces viral load to the point where it's undetectable...but you can still pass the virus to others when your viral load is undetectable, so be sure to continue using a latex condom or dental dam during all sexual activity.

If I know I've been exposed to HIV, what should I do?

If you know you've recently been exposed to HIV, call your doctor or go to the nearest Emergency Room right away...receiving antiretroviral treatment within 72 hours of exposure may prevent your developing the disease. Specialists recommend starting that antiretroviral treatment immediately, ideally within the first 24 hours of exposure.

Note: People infected with HIV often experience the flu-like symptoms of what's called Acute Retroviral Syndrome within two to four weeks of exposure. This is when the virus is most infectious...if you think you may have been exposed to HIV within the last month or two, it's imperative that you get tested and treated, and that you use latex condoms during all sexual activity.

What's the connection between HIV and AIDS?

While HIV causes AIDS, not everyone who is HIV-positive has AIDS. Remember, it's possible to have HIV for years and not develop or show any signs or symptoms of the disease. Treatment can slow down the potential of developing AIDS and other infections (including tuberculosis), certain cancers, weight loss, dementia and other health problems.

Pregnancy and treatment

In general, HIV can be treated during pregnancy, greatly reducing the potential risks to your baby. Consult your regular doctor about the risks involved, and to identify a treatment that's best for you and your baby.

Last reviewed by Lisa Oldson, MD, January 2011.

Lisa Oldson, MD

STD expert

"The first thing I tell a patient about STDs is that if you're worried about one STD, you should probably worry about all STDs. In other words, if you had unprotected sex and you're worried about a possible HIV exposure, it's important to understand that hepatitis can be spread in the same fashion...ditto for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis."