How Is HIV Treated?

Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a type of drug therapy that is effective in treating HIV. The goal of treatment is to reduce the HIV viral load in your blood.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks CD4 cells (white blood cells) in the immune system. The virus transmits from person to person through unprotected sex and shared needles.

Getting an HIV test is the only way to know if you have HIV. If you receive a positive test result, it’s important to begin treatment as soon as possible. If left untreated, the virus continues to multiply and increases your risk of developing acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

There is no cure for HIV, but you can control the virus with a treatment called antiretroviral therapy (ART), which is a combination of medications. HIV treatment is available in two forms: pills and shots.

The goal of treatment is to lower your viral load (the amount of HIV in your blood) to an undetectable level—meaning that the level of HIV in your blood is so low that you cannot measure HIV in a viral load test or transmit the virus to others. When the viral load is low, the immune system has a chance to recover and produce more CD4 cells—and as a result, improve your ability to fight other infections and certain HIV-related cancers.

Pharmacist holding a bottle of pill medication

SDI Productions / Getty Images

Before You Start HIV Treatment

Getting started on a treatment plan soon after receiving a positive HIV diagnosis is essential for your long-term health. Social service providers and healthcare providers alike are there to help you through the early stages of your diagnosis and help you figure out a treatment plan. 

Your healthcare provider will likely consider certain factors before creating a treatment regimen that is right for you. These factors may include:

  • Your current medical history and overall health 
  • Possible side effects of HIV medications
  • Drug interactions between HIV medications and other medications you might be taking  
  • Your results from HIV drug-resistance testing
  • The ease and convenience of the treatment plan 
  • Other issues that might make it hard to follow treatment, such as a lack of health insurance or the cost of medication 

Drug resistance testing for HIV shows which medications (if any) will not be effective in treating your HIV. 

Understanding the HIV Life Cycle

HIV treatment uses antiretroviral therapy—a combination of medications that slow the replication of HIV in your body at different points of the HIV life cycle. The HIV life cycle is a process that outlines the biology behind HIV multiplication in your body. The life cycle breaks down into seven stages:

  1. Binding: HIV attaches itself to a CD4 cell in your immune system.
  2. Fusion: HIV enters the CD4 cell.
  3. Reverse transcription: HIV RNA turns into HIV DNA.
  4. Integration: HIV DNA inserts itself into the DNA of the CD4 cell.
  5. Replication: HIV builds long chains of HIV proteins, which begins the process of replicating the virus in your CD4 cells.
  6. Assembly: HIV proteins and RNA move to the surface of the cell and develop into immature HIV.
  7. Budding: Immature HIV moves out of the cell and matures into infectious HIV.

There are seven HIV drug classes and each drug class targets a specific step in the HIV life cycle. The seven classes of HIV medications are:

  • CCR5 antagonists
  • Fusion inhibitors
  • Attachment and post-attachment inhibitors 
  • Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs)
  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs)
  • Integrase strand transfer inhibitors (INSTIs)
  • Protease inhibitors (PIs)

It’s important to note that there are no medications that block the replication or assembly steps of the HIV life cycle.

Drug Class

A drug class is a group of medications that share similar properties, such as their chemical structure or how they work.

CCR5 Antagonists

HIV destroys CD4 cells, a type of white blood cell in the immune system. HIV enters CD4 cells by binding to a receptor. A receptor is a protein that lives on the surface of a cell. Receptors send chemical signals to the cells.

HIV enters CD4 cells by binding to a CD4 receptor and one additional co-receptor: either the C-C chemokine receptor 5 (CCR5) or the C-X-C chemokine receptor 4 (CXCR4). CCR5 antagonists are a type of antiviral medication that works by blocking HIV’s entry into the CD4 cell. This medication directly affects the binding phase of the HIV life cycle.

Antiviral Medications

Antiviral medications are any type of medicine that treats infections caused by a virus. 

Currently, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved one CCR5 antagonist for HIV treatment:  

Brand Name  Generic Name Medication Type 
Selzentry maraviroc Pill or oral liquid

Attachment and Post-Attachment Inhibitors

Attachment and post-attachment inhibitors prevent HIV from either attaching to CD4 cells or from entering them. These inhibitors work to prevent the virus from moving into the fusion phase of the HIV life cycle.

There are two FDA-approved medications:

Brand Name Generic Name Medication Type
Rukobia fostemsavir Pill
Trogarzo  ibalizumab Injection

Fusion Inhibitors

HIV uses a protein called glycoprotein 41 (also referred to as “gp41”) to emerge inside a CD4 cell. Glycoproteins are found on the surface of HIV. As the name denotes, fusion inhibitors bind to gp41 and prevent the fusion phase of the HIV life cycle.

At this time, there is only one fusion inhibitor treatment available:

Brand Name  Generic Name Medication Type
Fuzeon enfuvirtide Injection

Fuzeon is an injection that you take twice a day. Multiple injections over a long period of time can lead to skin reactions at the site of the injection. This might make Fuzeon difficult to take for a long period of time.

NRTIs and NNRTIs

Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) and non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) are a class of HIV medications that block the conversion of HIV RNA to DNA. This prevents HIV from replicating (making copies of itself).

NRTIs and NNRTIs work by binding to and blocking an HIV enzyme called HIV reverse transcriptase. Reverse transcriptase is what HIV uses to change its genetic material from RNA to DNA. These inhibitors block the reverse transcription phase of the HIV life cycle.

There are several FDA-approved NRTIs and NNRTIs. 

Examples of NRTIs include:

Brand Name  Generic Name Medication Type
Ziagen abacavir Pill or oral liquid
Emtriva emtricitabine Pill or oral liquid
Epivir lamivudine Pill or oral liquid
Viread tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (TDF) Pill or oral powder
Retrovir zidovudine Pill, oral liquid, or injection

Your healthcare provider may also prescribe you NNRTIs. Examples of NNRTIs include:

Brand Name  Generic Name  Medication Type 
Pifeltro doravirine Pill
Sustiva efavirenz Pill
Intelence etravirine Pill
Viramune or Viramune XR nevirapine Pill or oral liquid
Edurant rilpivirine Pill 

Integrase Strand Transfer Inhibitors 

Integrase strand transfer inhibitors (INSTIs) work by blocking an HIV enzyme known as integrase. HIV uses integrase to insert (or integrate) its viral DNA into the DNA of CD4 cells. Blocking integrase prevents HIV from making more copies of itself. Integrase strand transfer inhibitors are sometimes also referred to as integrase inhibitors. These inhibitors block the integration phase of the HIV life cycle.

Examples of INSTIs include:

Brand Name  Generic Name  Medication Type
Tivicay or Tivicay PD dolutegravir Pill
Vocabria or Apretude cabotegravir Pill or injection
Isentress or Isentress HD raltegravir Pill or oral powder

Protease Inhibitors

Protease inhibitors (PIs) are a class of HIV medications that block protease, an HIV enzyme. Medicines that block protease prevent new (or immature) HIV from maturing. These medications work during the budding phase of the HIV life cycle.  

Common protease inhibitors for HIV treatment include:

Brand Name Generic Name Medication Type
Norvir ritonavir Pill or oral liquid
Lexiva fosamprenavir Pill or oral liquid
Prezista darunavir Pill or oral liquid
Reyataz atazanavir Pill or oral powder
Aptivus tipranavir Pill

Combination Medications 

In some cases, your healthcare provider may recommend combination medications (medicines that combine multiple medications into one drug). These medications help lower the burden of having to take multiple pills or injections each day.

Some examples of combination medications include:

Brand Name Generic Name Medication Type
Descovy emtricitabine and tenofovir alafenamide Pill
Truvada emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Pill
Epzicom abacavir and lamivudine Pill
Biktarvy bictegravir, emtricitabine, and tenofovir alafenamide Pill
Symtuza darunavir, cobicistat, emtricitabine, and tenofovir alafenamide Pill
Atripla efavirenz, emtricitabine, and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Pill
Symfi or Symfi Lo efavirenz, lamivudine, and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Pill
Complera emtricitabine, rilpivirine, and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Pill
Cimduo lamivudine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate Pill

Combination medications help treat one or more phases of the HIV life cycle at a time. 

Paying for HIV Care

Most types of health insurance cover HIV treatment. If you do not have insurance or your insurance does not cover HIV treatment, there are several federal programs that you may consider looking into that can help you receive proper medication and check-ins with a healthcare provider.


To learn about your options for paying for HIV treatment, visit the National Institutes of Health website here

Living With and Managing HIV 

Receiving an HIV diagnosis can be scary. But recent advancements in HIV medication have helped expand treatment options for people who are HIV-positive. The most important thing you can do to manage your condition is to follow your treatment plan. 

A person’s viral load can reach an undetectable level three to six months after starting treatment. Although there isn’t a cure for HIV, having and maintaining an undetectable viral load allows people with HIV to live longer lives. People who have been able to achieve an undetectable viral load have no risk of transmitting HIV to their HIV-negative partners through sex.

If a person’s viral load goes down after starting antiretroviral therapy, this means that treatment is working. However, it’s crucial to stay on track with your treatment. Missing HIV treatments allows the virus to multiply quickly and weaken the immune system. 

A Quick Review

It’s important to start HIV treatment as soon as possible after a positive diagnosis. The goal of HIV treatment is to lower the amount of HIV in the blood (viral load) to an undetectable level. 

Your healthcare provider will use antiretroviral therapy to treat HIV. There are several types of medications currently on the market that treat HIV. Your provider will also work with you to find a combination of medications that works best for the stage of HIV you are in and your overall health. 

Missing or delaying treatment gives the virus a chance to multiply quickly, which can weaken your immune system and make you sick. It can also allow the virus to mutate and become resistant, making it harder to treat. If you are having trouble staying on top of treatment, talk to your healthcare provider about alternative treatment options (such as combination medications) and finding a regimen that works best for your lifestyle. 

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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