Understand and manage the side effects of HIV treatment.

Learn about the common long and short term side effects of HIV treatment (ARVs). Find out how to deal with the side effects of HIV treatment.

Side effects of HIV treatment and how to handle them

The side effects of ARV treatment effects are often mild. Sometimes, however, the side effects of ARV treatment are more serious. These can affect your health or quality of life.

What are the side effects of ARVs/ART?

All medicines have side effects. Side effects range from unnoticeable to unpleasant. Mild side effects are common and are often a good sign that the medicine has started to work. The main goal of HIV treatment is to fight HIV in the body, but it also aims to do this without causing extreme side effects.

The side effects of ARV treatment are often mild. Sometimes, however, the side effects of ARV treatment are more serious. These can affect your health or quality of life. 

Many of the newer medications for HIV have fewer side effects than their predecessors.

If you are experiencing serious or worrisome side effects of your ARV treatment, you can take steps to reduce or cope with them. Once started, antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) must be taken every day for the rest of your life.

ARV treatment adherence

Every time you miss or skip a dose of your ARV treatment, you run the risk of the treatment failing.

People receiving ARV treatment must get all the help they need to minimise the side effects. This could include treating the side effects, or switching to alternative ARV drugs to reduce the side effects. Speak to your healthcare provider about all treatment options and the potential side effects associated with each one.

What are the short-term side effects of HIV treatment?

Almost all medicines have side effects, including HIV medicines. While your HIV medicines are controlling the virus in your body, they may also cause:

  • Anaemia (abnormality in red blood cells).
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headaches.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Pain and nerve problems.
  • Skin rash.

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What are the long-term side effects of ARVs/ART?

HIV medications can have significant long term side effects. Many of the long term side effects of ARVs can be treated. You need to tell your healthcare provider about any side effects you may experience. That way, they can decide the best course of treatment for you. Always let your healthcare provider know about your experience of side effects, especially if you are finding it difficult to stay on your treatment plan.

Some of the most common long term side effects of HIV treatment include:

  • Lipodystrophy is a problem in the way your body produces, uses, and stores fat (also called “fat redistribution”). These changes can include losing fat in the face and extremities and gaining fat in the abdomen and back of the neck.
  • Insulin Resistance is a condition that can lead to abnormalities in your blood sugar levels and possibly, Diabetes. Going for a regular blood sugar level test at your nearest lab is a good way to find out if you have insulin resistance.
  • Lipid abnormalities are when there is an increase in cholesterol or triglycerides. Like with insulin resistance, lab tests that check for cholesterol and triglycerides levels are the best way to detect lipid abnormalities.
  • A decrease in bone density can be a significant issue especially for older adults with HIV. This can lead to an increased risk of injury and fractures.
  • Lactic acidosis is a buildup of lactate, a cellular waste product, in the body. This can cause problems ranging from muscle aches to liver failure. Alert your health care provider immediately if you suspect you might have this condition.

How to deal with side effects from HIV treatment:

When you first start treatment for HIV, you may have experienced headaches, an upset stomach, fatigue, or aches and pains. These side effects usually go away after a brief adjustment period, lasting anywhere from a few days to a month. If you notice any unusual or severe reactions after starting or changing a drug, report the side effects to your healthcare provider immediately.

Dealing with medication side effects can be a huge barrier to starting and continuing HIV medications. Don’t let these derail your treatment plan or discourage you from starting in the first place. It is never a good idea to stop treatment without first consulting your healthcare provider, as this may cause HIV to develop drug resistance.

Related articles

When non-adherence to ARVs is a risk to your health.

Managing your ARVs

When to start Antiretroviral treatment and the reasons behind why you should not delay treatment.

How ART treatment is saving lives.

How ART treatment is saving lives

The treatment of HIV infection as a chronic manageable disease, instead of a fatal one, has become a reality thanks to ART treatment.

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The history of HIV treatment

How have antiretroviral drugs evolved over time?

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