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Overview of HIV Treatments

How is HIV Treated?

HIV is treated using a combination of medicines to fight HIV infection. This is called antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART isn’t a cure, but it can control the virus so that you can live a longer, healthier life and reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others.

ART involves taking a combination of HIV medicines (called an HIV regimen) every day, exactly as prescribed.

These HIV medicines prevent HIV from multiplying (making copies of itself), which reduces the amount of HIV in your body. Having less HIV in your body gives your immune system a chance to recover and fight off infections and cancers. Even though there is still some HIV in the body, the immune system is strong enough to fight off infections and cancers.

By reducing the amount of HIV in your body, HIV medicines also reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

ART is recommended for all people with HIV, regardless of how long they’ve had the virus or how healthy they are. If left untreated, HIV will attack the immune system and eventually progress to AIDS.

HIV Drug Classes

HIV medicines are grouped into six drug classes according to how they fight HIV. The six drug classes are:

The six drug classes include more than 25 HIV medicines that are approved to treat HIV infection. Some HIV medicines are available in combination (in other words, two or more different HIV medicines are combined in one pill.)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides guidelines on the use of HIV medicines to treat HIV infection. The HHS guidelines recommend starting ART with a regimen of three HIV medicines from at least two different drug classes. 

NIH AIDSInfo’s FDA-Approved Medicines provides a complete list of HIV medicines, grouped by class, that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of HIV infection in the United States. In addition, NIAID’s Drugs that Fight HIV (PDF 1.3MB) is a full-color illustrated guide to approved HIV medications.

Choosing an HIV Regimen

The choice of HIV medicines to include in an HIV regimen depends on a person’s individual needs. When choosing an HIV regimen, people with HIV and their health care providers consider the following factors:

  • Other diseases or conditions that the person with HIV may have
  • Possible side effects of HIV medicines
  • Potential interactions between HIV medicines or between HIV medicines and other medicines the person with HIV is taking
  • Results of drug-resistance testing (and other tests). Drug-resistance testing identifies which, if any, HIV medicines won’t be effective against a person’s HIV.
  • Convenience of the regimen. For example, a regimen that includes two or more HIV medicines combined in one pill is convenient to follow.
  • Any issues that can make it difficult to follow an HIV regimen, such as a busy schedule that changes from day to day
  • Cost of HIV medicines

There are several recommended HIV regimens, but selecting the best regimen for a particular person depends on the factors listed above. 

If you are starting HIV treatment for the first time, NIH AIDSInfo shares information about selecting a first HIV regimen.

Last revised: 08/13/2015