HIV treatment

Michael Carter

Most people with HIV in the UK can expect to live well into old age. This is largely thanks to ongoing improvements in HIV treatment and care.

In this section, we look at HIV treatment (often called antiretroviral therapy).

When taken properly, combinations of different anti-HIV drugs (also called antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs) can reduce the amount of HIV in the blood (often called ‘viral load’) to levels so low that it cannot be detected using the tests most commonly used.

All viral load tests have a cut-off point below which they cannot reliably detect HIV. This is called the limit of detection. Tests used most commonly in the UK have a lower limit of detection of either 40 or 50 copies/ml, but there are some very sensitive tests that can measure below 20 copies/ml. If your viral load is below 50, it is usually said to be undetectable.

This is now the aim of HIV treatment for everyone, whether you're taking your first combination of anti-HIV drugs or have considerable experience of HIV treatment – to achieve and maintain an ‘undetectable’ viral load.

Reducing the amount of HIV in the body limits the damage HIV can do to your immune system. As your viral load goes down, your immune system will start to recover. This should be indicated by an increase in your CD4 cell count, a key marker of the strength of your immune system. There’s also a good chance you’ll notice an improvement in your health at the same time, if you have been ill due to HIV. (You can find out more about CD4 cell counts and viral load tests in Key tests to monitor HIV.)

However, even when HIV is being suppressed to undetectable low levels, the remaining virus could rebound to high levels if you miss a number of doses or stop taking your anti-HIV drugs. You need to take your HIV treatment at the right time and in the right way for it to work properly.  This is often called ‘adherence’. (You can find out more about taking your HIV treatment in the right way in Adherence.)

This section considers some important questions about your HIV treatment. 

In the UK, standards for HIV treatment and care are set and monitored by the British HIV Association, or BHIVA, the professional association for HIV doctors and other healthcare professionals. These standards are reviewed regularly. The most recent guidelines on HIV treatment for adults were produced in 2012. You can find out more in our summaries of the 2012 guidelines on HIV treatment for adults, produced by NAM for BHIVA.

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.