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HIV and AIDS

Read about treatments for HIV, including post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), antiretrovirals (ARVs), HIV and pregnancy, sperm washing, side effects and getting support.

While there's no cure for HIV, there are very effective treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.

Emergency HIV drugs

If you think you've been exposed to the virus, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medication may stop you becoming infected.

PEP must be started within 72 hours of coming into contact with the virus for it to be effective. It's only recommended following higher risk exposure, particularly where the sexual partner is known to be positive.

PEP involves taking HIV treatment every day for one month. It may cause some side effects.

You should be able to get PEP from:

  • sexual health clinics or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics
  • hospitals – usually accident and emergency (A&E) departments

If you already have HIV, try your HIV clinic if the PEP is for someone you've had sex with.

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If you test positive

If you're diagnosed with HIV, you'll have regular blood tests to monitor the progress of the HIV infection before starting treatment.

Two important blood tests are:

  • HIV viral load test – a blood test that monitors the amount of HIV virus in your blood
  • CD4 lymphocyte cell count – which measures how the HIV has affected your immune system

Treatment can be started at any point following your diagnosis, depending on your circumstances and in consultation with your HIV doctor.

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Antiretroviral drugs

HIV is treated with antiretroviral medications, which work by stopping the virus replicating in the body. This allows the immune system to repair itself and prevent further damage.

A combination of HIV drugs is used because HIV can quickly adapt and become resistant.

Some HIV treatments have been combined into one pill, known as a fixed dose combination, although these often cost more to prescribe.

Usually, people who have just been diagnosed with HIV take between one and four pills a day.

Different combinations of HIV medicines work for different people, so the medicine you take will be individual to you.

Many of the medicines used to treat HIV can interact with other medications prescribed by your GP or bought over-the-counter.

These include herbal remedies like St John's Wort, as well as some recreational drugs. Always check with your HIV clinic staff or your GP before taking any other medicines.

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Missing a dose

Once treatment is started, you'll probably need to take medication for the rest of your life. For the treatment to be continuously effective, it needs to be taken regularly at the same time every day.

Missing even a few doses increases the risk of your treatment not working and developing resistance to your HIV medicines.

You'll need to develop a daily routine to fit your treatment plan around your lifestyle.

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Side effects

HIV treatment can have side effects. If you get serious side effects, which is uncommon, you may need to try a different combination of drugs.

Common side effects include:

  • nausea
  • diarrhoea
  • skin rashes
  • sleep difficulties

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