What does treatment include?
March 2, 2012
Currently, there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, but the treatment available, ARV (antiretroviral) drugs, works at slowing the progression of HIV to the development of AIDS. Without treatment, HIV positive people usually live up to 10-12 years after infection, while people on treatment can delay the onset of AIDS for more than 35 years with today's drugs, but treatment is improving constantly.
HIV damages the body's immune response by destroying its CD4+ or helper T cells. Treatment does not usually begin until the HIV virus has depleted the number of CD4+ or helper T cells in the blood to less than 350 cells per mm3 of blood. Normal levels are around 1000 cells per mm3 of blood, while AIDS is defined as the point where there are less than 200 T cells per mm3 of blood. In order to monitor your T-cell count, you should get regular CD4 tests, and your doctor will explain your treatment options and when to begin treatment. Lifestyle choices can also either accelerate or slow the progression of the disease. These changes are mostly to take care of your health and to remove unneeded stress from your life; a stressed-out body is much less able to take care of itself and protect itself from HIV, with or without ARVs.
Why do you need blood tests?
Everybody's blood is different. Blood tests, or viral load tests, should be taken regularly to monitor T-cell count to show how far HIV has progressed and to indicate when treatment should begin. They will also provide information on which strain of HIV the person has and therefore which antiretroviral (ARV) drugs will work most effectively against it. Later, they will show how well the ARV treatment is working against HIV.
Treatment usually consists of prescribed ARV drugs, or antiretroviral drugs. Antiretroviral drugs try to lower the levels of HIV to prevent damage to the immune system and allow it to partially recover. The ARV drugs work by protecting the cells which HIV attacks and by preventing HIV from replicating and producing more of itself. Since the virus is able to mutate and form a resistance to the drugs, ARVs are often used in combinations and must be taken every day at the same time. Adhering to treatment is essential since a break in treatment could cause the ARV drugs to be ineffective against mutated HIV strains. Currently there are 20 different ARV drugs available, and doctors will usually create a personalized combination of ARV drugs for each patient, depending on their specific strain of HIV, the side effects of the drugs, and the availablility and price of the drugs. The first set of ARVs prescribed may cease to work after a while if the HIV strain becomes resistant or if it causes serious side effects, and can be replaced by a second and larger combination of ARV drugs.