- If you are having problems taking your HIV treatment, it’s important to be honest with the members of your healthcare team.
- There are lots of reasons you might want or need to change treatment including virological failure, resistance, side effects, drug interactions, simplification, cost, pregnancy and hepatitis B infection.
There are a number of reasons why you may need to change your HIV treatment. If you are thinking about stopping or changing your treatment, talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team, so that they can support you to find the best treatment for you. It’s not a good idea to change treatment without first speaking to your doctor.
All drug regimens come with different pros and cons. Finding the treatment that is right for you is important. Your experience of treatment and adherence to it could be affected by many factors and it is important that they are managed in a way that works for you.
Due to advances in HIV treatment, there may be more options now than when the drugs you are currently on were chosen. Knowing what is available is key to ensuring that the treatment is sustainable for the long term and does not negatively impact on your quality of life.
Changing treatment because it isn’t working
Virological failure is when treatment fails to suppress and sustain the viral load effectively.
The aim of HIV treatment is to have a viral load that is ‘undetectable’, usually defined as below 50 copies/ml. Your viral load should fall to undetectable levels within three to six months of starting treatment. If it doesn’t, your doctor will investigate the reasons why and work with you to resolve this.
The most common reason for virological failure is missing doses and the development of drug resistance. (See the next section for more on this.) It can also occur due to biological factors, including suboptimal bodily absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion of the drugs (pharmacokinetics), having a very high viral load before treatment, and drug interactions.
Changing treatment because of resistance
Not taking your treatment as prescribed means that your viral load may increase to detectable levels. This means that the virus may become resistant to the anti-HIV drugs you are taking. Virological failure can occur because of this.
Before changing treatment, you should have blood tests to see which drug or drugs you have become resistant to. This is called ‘resistance testing’. These tests will help you and your doctor to choose the drugs that have the best chance of working against your HIV and be most effective for you. Resistance tests can only be done if your viral load is detectable.
When HIV develops resistance to one drug it can also develop ‘cross-resistance’ to other similar drugs as well.
A number of anti-HIV drugs are available as treatment options for people who have taken a lot of treatment in the past and who have drug-resistant HIV. It’s becoming easier to find a combination of drugs that is effective. These include:
- bictegravir (included in Biktarvy), an integrase inhibitor
- dolutegravir (Tivicay, also in Triumeq), an integrase inhibitor
- elvitegravir (included in Stribild and Genvoya), an integrase inhibitor
- darunavir (Prezista, also in Rezolsta and Symtuza), a protease inhibitor
- doravirine (Pifeltro, also in Delstrigo), a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor
- etravirine (Intelence), a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor
- fostemsavir (Rukobia), an attachment inhibitor
- ibalizumab (Trogarzo), a post-attachment inhibitor
- maraviroc (Celsentri), a CCR5 inhibitor.
Other treatment options are in development for people with drug-resistant HIV who are highly treatment-experienced, some of which work against HIV in completely new ways.
Changing treatment because of side effects
All drugs can cause side effects and the drugs used in treating HIV are no exception. The most common side effects happen soon after you start treatment with a drug, but some only develop when you’ve been taking a drug for months or even years.
Sometimes you may experience a symptom and not be sure whether it's a side effect of a drug or a symptom of something else. Talk to your doctor, or another member of your healthcare team, about any concerns you have. You shouldn't feel that you have to cope with side effects alone.
It is particularly important to talk to your doctor if you develop a rash (even one that isn’t severe) or fever soon after taking certain drugs, such as abacavir (Ziagen, also in the combination pills Kivexa and Triumeq), nevirapine (Viramune) and etravirine (Intelence), as this could be a sign of an allergic reaction. Other side effects can get worse the longer you leave them, so it’s best to mention them as soon as they develop.
If side effects cause problems, changing treatment may be an option.
As all anti-HIV drugs can cause side effects, it is possible that the drug you switch to might have other side effects. There is also a chance that you might find your new treatment harder to take or that it is not as effective as your previous treatment. If this happens, your doctor should be able to find a more suitable combination, or switch you back to the medication you were on before.
Longer term side effects will be carefully monitored by your doctor as some may only be apparent with laboratory tests. If you are concerned about anything listed below, please speak to your doctor and they can discuss your concerns.
Potential longer term side effects of specific drugs include:
- Central nervous system adverse events (this could be impaired concentration, mood swings or sleep disturbance) – efavirenz (Sustiva, also in Atripla) and dolutegravir (Tivicay, also in Triumeq, Juluca and Dovato).
- Kidney problems – tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Viread, also in Truvada, Atripla, Stribild and Eviplera) and protease inhibitors boosted with ritonavir or cobicistat.
- Liver problems – nevirapine (Viramune).
- Low bone mineral density – tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Viread, also in Truvada, Atripla, Stribild and Eviplera) and protease inhibitors boosted with ritonavir or cobicistat.
- Weight increase – integrase inhibitors and tenofovir alafenamide (included in Descovy, Odefsey, Genvoya, Symtuza and Biktarvy).
- Lipid abnormalities (raised cholesterol or triglyceride) – efavirenz (Sustiva, also in Atripla) and lopinavir/ritonavir (Kaletra).
If you already have one of these health issues, it would be best to avoid a drug that might make it worse. Your doctor will discuss any changes in your health with you. This will help to determine if and when you need to change treatment.
Changing treatment because of drug interactions
Many people living with HIV need to take treatment for other health conditions. Taking two or more different drugs together could alter the effectiveness or side effects of these drugs.
When you are being prescribed or dispensed other drugs, it is important that the doctor or pharmacist is aware of which antiretrovirals you are taking. This includes any over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbal and alternative drugs and recreational drugs. Avoiding possible drug interactions is key to ensuring that the treatment works effectively.
"You shouldn't feel that you have to cope with side-effects alone."
Some drug combinations are contraindicated – which means you definitely should not take them together. If taken together, it could cause serious side effects, or interactions which make one or both drugs ineffective or toxic. Other possible interactions are less dangerous, but still need to be taken seriously. Levels of one or both drugs in your blood may be affected and you may need to change the doses you take.
Your HIV doctor and pharmacist will monitor possible interactions before prescribing new medicines to you. They may suggest changing your anti-HIV medication to avoid interactions. The University of Liverpool has a helpful resource for you to be able to easily check what drug-drug interactions may occur.
Changing to a simpler treatment
You might be able to change your treatment to one that involves fewer pills, fewer doses or fewer constraints, making it easier to take. There may be more treatment options available to you now than when you started your current regimen, due to advances in HIV treatment. Simplification could involve switching from a triple-drug regimen to a two-drug regimen.
Complicated treatment regimens are a common problem, particularly if you are taking medication for other health problems too. It is important that your doctor works with you to try and alleviate this.
Food requirements can be a barrier to a good quality of life and adherence. For example rilpivirine (Edurant) must be taken with a full meal, whilst efavirenz (Sustiva) must be taken on an empty stomach. These requirements won’t work for everyone. You might be able to change to drugs without food restrictions.
As some drugs raise the risk of some long-term health problems, regular monitoring of cholesterol, bone problems, liver function or kidney function may be required. Monitoring needs vary for each regimen; changing treatment could also reduce monitoring needs as you would not be at increased risk due to your regimen.
Changing treatment because of pregnancy
If you are planning a pregnancy or have recently become pregnant, you may need to switch to a different treatment. It is worthwhile speaking to your doctor if you are planning a pregnancy sooner rather than later. If your viral load is not undetectable, you may need to change treatment to achieve a rapid viral load decline.
If you are on any of the following treatment, your regimen may have to be modified:
- darunavir/cobicistat (Rezolsta, also in Symtuza)
- elvitegravir/cobicistat (included in Stribild and Genvoya)
- dolutegravir (Tivicay, also in Triumeq, Juluca and Dovato).
If you are taking raltegravir (Isentress) once a day, you may need to switch to taking it twice a day.
Changing treatment because of hepatitis B
If you also have hepatitis B, you may need to change your treatment to include either tenofovir disoproxil fumarate or tenofovir alafenamide, as these also treat hepatitis B. You can switch from one of these drugs to the other, but once you have started to take tenofovir, it is important not to stop it, as this can cause hepatitis B flare-ups and increase the risk of liver problems.
Changing treatment because of cost
Your doctor may suggest switching to a different drug that is as effective, but is less expensive.
Or they may ask you to switch to a generic drug. This is a medication created to be the same as an existing approved brand-name drug. Generic drugs are the same in performance, safety, strength and quality. As more of these become available, you may switch to take these to reduce the cost of your medication.
Thanks to Fiona Clark and Professor Frank Post for their advice.