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HIV treatment – a longer and healthier life

Good medical care, including access to anti-HIV drugs, can mean a long and healthy life for people living with HIV. Current HIV treatment does not cure HIV, but keeps it under control allowing the immune system to stay strong.

The amount of illness and death in people with HIV fell dramatically after combinations of three anti-HIV drugs started to be used in the mid-1990s. There have been further improvements in HIV treatment and care since then. Research has shown that HIV treatment means someone with HIV has a more-or-less normal life expectancy. To put it very simply – HIV treatment works!

In 2015 a large, well-conducted study demonstrated that there are advantages to starting treatment as soon as possible, with high CD4 cell counts. This demonstrated that starting HIV treatment earlier reduces the risk of serious illnesses, AIDS and death. Concerning side-effects, people who started HIV treatment earlier had a better quality of life than people who delayed treatment. The study clearly showed that earlier treatment has more benefits than harms.

Other large studies have shown that taking treatment and having an undetectable viral load dramatically reduces the risk of HIV transmission. 

As a result, HIV treatment guidelines, both in the UK and elsewhere in the world, now recommend that all people with HIV should take HIV treatment, regardless of their CD4 count.

If your CD4 count is below 200, it is especially important that you begin HIV treatment as soon as possible. The lower your CD4 count, the greater the risk of HIV making you ill. But even at higher CD4 counts, above 500, treatment you take now will protect your health, both now and in the future.

To get the maximum benefit from HIV treatment you need to take your treatment in the way your doctor or pharmacist has advised every day. For most people starting HIV treatment, this means taking one or two pills once a day.

If you take all your doses correctly, will mean that there is very little chance that your drugs will stop working because your HIV has become resistant to them. Many people will forget a dose at some point, but most anti-HIV drugs will still work if you miss an occasional dose and take it a few hours later. You can find out more in another booklet in this series, Taking your HIV treatment.

Like any other medicines, the drugs used to treat HIV can have unwanted effects that are sometimes unpleasant or can even make you unwell. These are called side-effects. Sometimes they are also called secondary effects, adverse events or adverse reactions.

It’s important to stress that the benefits of HIV treatment by far outweigh the risk of side-effects. Untreated HIV does more damage to the body than anti-HIV drugs.

The anti-HIV drugs used today cause far fewer side-effects than those that were commonly used in the past. The choice of drugs is much greater now and something can usually be done if your anti-HIV drugs do cause side-effects. You don’t have to ‘grin and bear’ side-effects.

This booklet provides you with information about HIV treatment side-effects, the likelihood they will happen, how to minimise the risk of them developing, how to manage them if they do occur and what to do if you develop a serious side-effect.


Published July 2013

Last reviewed July 2013

Next review July 2016

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this booklet.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
Community Consensus Statement on Access to HIV Treatment and its Use for Prevention

Together, we can make it happen

We can end HIV soon if people have equal access to HIV drugs as treatment and as PrEP, and have free choice over whether to take them.

Launched today, the Community Consensus Statement is a basic set of principles aimed at making sure that happens.

The Community Consensus Statement is a joint initiative of AVAC, EATG, MSMGF, GNP+, HIV i-Base, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, ITPC and NAM/aidsmap