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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!

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. 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’re most likely to get the greatest benefit from your HIV treatment if you start taking treatment before HIV has done too much damage to your immune system. In the UK, standards for HIV treatment and care are set and monitored by the British HIV Association (BHIVA), the professional association for HIV doctors and other healthcare professionals.

BHIVA’s guidelines on HIV treatment currently recommend that adults start treatment when their CD4 cell count is around 350. Starting treatment at this time has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV-related illness and of some other serious illnesses, such as heart, kidney and liver disease as well.

In some situations, it may be recommended that someone starts treatment sooner, while their CD4 cell count is still above 350. These include:

  • if you have an HIV-related illness
  • if you have hepatitis
  • if you need treatment for cancer
  • if you are over 50, or
  • to reduce the risk of passing HIV on.

However a major trial announced its results in May 2015 and this is likely to result in BHIVA's  guidelines changing. This study proved that there are advantages to starting treatment at high CD4 cell counts. We now know that starting HIV treatment earlier reduces the risk of serious illnesses, AIDS, death and HIV transmission. It’s important to feel ready for the commitment of taking HIV treatment, but when you do feel ready, there’s no reason to delay.

Once you’ve started treatment, it is important to take all the doses of your anti-HIV drugs correctly. This will mean that there is very little chance that your drugs will stop working because your HIV has become resistant to them. You can find out more about taking HIV treatment in the booklet in this series, Adherence & resistance.

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.

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.