Antiretroviral therapy

Also called ART

Key points about antiretroviral therapy

  • Antiretroviral therapy, or ART refers to a combination of antiviral medicines used to treat HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).
  • These work by stopping the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and preventing further damage.
  • Find out how to take it safely and possible side effects.
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There are currently several classes of antiretrovirals and they all work in different ways against HIV.  

Antiretroviral drug class Examples 
Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors Tenofovir, emtricitabine, abacavir, lamivudine, didanosine, zidovudine
Protease inhibitors Atazanavir, darunavir, indinavir, lopinavir, ritonavir
Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors Efavirenz, etravirine, nevirapine, rilpivirine 

Fixed-dose combinations

Some antiretroviral medicines have been combined into one pill, known as a "fixed-dose combination". This means that the most common treatments for people just diagnosed with HIV involve taking just 1 or 2 pills a day.

Read a complete list of antiretroviral medicines currently available in New Zealand(external link)

There is no set rule on when to start HIV treatments, however, evidence shows that there are health benefits to starting as early after your diagnosis as possible. Your doctor or HIV specialist will be aware of current guidelines and NZ criteria for public funding of the antiretrovirals.

Starting treatment for HIV is a long-term commitment. It is important to keep taking your antiviral medication because if you stop taking medication, or do not take it regularly, the virus may become resistant to it. It is important to take your medicines as prescribed and not miss any pills or appointments. You may also need to have regular blood tests.

Side effects from antiretroviral therapy can vary depending on the medicine and the person taking the medicine.

People taking the same antiretroviral medications can have very different side effects. Talk to your doctor if your side effects are difficult to manage. Some side effects, for example, headache or occasional dizziness, may not be serious. Other side effects, such as swelling of the mouth and tongue or liver damage, can be life-threatening. 

Common side effects include nausea (feeling sick), diarrhoea (runny or watery poos), skin rashes and sleep difficulties. 

Antiretroviral medicines can interact with each other, and they can also interact with other medicines prescribed by your doctor or medicines bought over-the-counter. These include herbal remedies such as St John's Wort, as well as recreational drugs. 

An interaction can reduce or increase a medicine's effect on the body. Interactions can also cause side effects. Always check with your HIV clinic staff or your GP before taking any other medicines.

HIV treatment(external link) NZ AIDS Foundation

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Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist, Healthify He Puna Waiora. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland

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