BC Centre in HIV/AIDS Primary Care Guidelines

Home Search

7 Information for Patients

What is HIV?

  • HIV is the abbreviation for a virus called ‘Human Immunodeficiency Virus
  • HIV attacks your immune system, especially the infection-fighting cells that are called ‘CD4’ cells and that are part of your immune system
  • Your immune system is how your body can fight off infections and illnesses
  • HIV makes your body’s immune system weak and likely to become ill. When your immune system gets really weak you can get sick with infections that can be serious and life-threatening.
  • Treatment is needed to keep your immune system working well and the HIV virus under control

I have HIV — what can I do?

It is important to have a doctor you can go to regularly. Ideally, all your health care is with this same doctor, but this is not possible for everybody.

It is also very important that your doctor understands you and you can talk freely with him or her about your health and other issues.

Can HIV be treated? Is there a cure for HIV?

HIV is a serious illness and many treatments have been developed.

Most medications for HIV work well and are simple to take, and a doctor can determine the best medication for each person.

At this time, there is no medication that makes HIV disappear completely, so there is no cure, and that is why it is called a ‘chronic illness’.

However, with proper medication, HIV can be controlled and treated. You can live an almost-normal life if HIV is caught early enough. That's why HIV testing and starting treatment early is so important!

Medications to treat HIV

Medications against HIV are often called:

  • HIV-medications/drugs or
  • Antiretrovirals or
  • Antiretroviral Therapy or
  • ARVs, ART or
  • HAART (Highly-Active Antiretroviral Therapy)
  • Combination antiretroviral therapy or cART

All these names mean basically the same thing. The medications carry those names because they are working against (‘anti’) the virus in the body. Here, we call them ‘HIV medications’.

Currently, there are over twenty medications available for the treatment of HIV

It is important to remember that HIV is a very powerful virus and just one medication alone is not enough to treat the virus and to keep it under control.

You need to take at least three different medications to keep the virus under control.

Since HIV multiplies so fast, it's important to take the medications exactly as instructed.

Some people get side effects from their HIV medication, while some other people get ‘resistant’ to their HIV medication, which means the medication does not work well any longer.

Touch the buttons below to learn more about side effects and medication resistance.

Side effects from HIV medications

Most people tolerate HIV medications very well, but some people have uncomfortable side effects.

Some of the most common side effects can be nausea, diarrhea, trouble sleeping or vivid dreams, and skin rash.

If you have side effects that bother you, please let your doctor or a pharmacist at the BC-CfE know as soon as possible.

Please remember, even you have side effects, do not stop your medication on your own. Do not take only some of your medication.

Instead, please talk to your doctor or pharmacist about it as soon as you can.

Your doctor can change your medication, but do not do this on your own!

This is important because when you skip medications or change them on your own, you can develop what is called ‘medication resistance’ or ‘drug resistance’ (which means the medication does not work well any longer).

Medication Resistance

Medication Resistance is when the virus changes so that a certain HIV medication, or a class of similar medications, no longer work to treat your HIV infection.

You want to avoid becoming ‘resistant’ to HIV medication, because that means your HIV medication will not work well any more.

The good news is if you have ‘medication resistance’, there are usually other HIV medications you can switch to.

Important blood tests

Your doctor will test your blood frequently to monitor how the treatment is working and also check for side effects of the medications you are taking.

Two important blood tests for HIV infections are the ‘Plasma Viral Load’ and the ‘CD4 cell count’. Touch the buttons below to see why they are important.

Plasma Viral Load

(also called Viral Load or pVL)

  • To measure how much virus is in your body, your blood will be checked for what is called the ‘viral load’.
  • A low viral load is better than a high viral load, because that means you have less HIV in your body.
  • Ideally when you are taking HIV medications, your viral load should be less than 40 copies/mL, which is also called ‘undetectable’. This means that the amount of virus in your blood is too low to be measured by the test the lab uses, but it does not mean there is no virus present. In other words, ‘undetectable’ is not the same as ‘zero’.
CD4 Cells

(also called CD4+ Cells)

To test how strong your immune system is, CD4 cells are measured. A high number of these infection-fighting CD4 cells is better than a low number, because the more you have of these, the stronger your immune system is and the better your body is able to fight illness.

Your doctor will also order additional blood and urine tests to check your liver, kidneys, cholesterol and other important tests that will make sure you stay as healthy as possible.

Worrying about your health and HIV

It is normal to be worried about sickness, and to be concerned about your health and your life.

In the past, people with HIV were labeled as belonging to certain lifestyles, but this is wrong as HIV can infect anyone.

Now, with proper treatment, not only are long lives possible, but passing the virus on is much less likely.

Some people who are HIV-positive like to talk about these things with other people who have HIV (often called ‘peers’ or ‘peer workers’).

Peers are available through organizations that your doctor's office can help you find. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers can also answer your questions.

Many excellent resources are available in lots of different places. Here are a few good places to start:

← § 6 Schedule of Assessments and Procedures § 8 Resources →