Antiretroviral therapy

Also called ART

Antiretroviral therapy, or ART refers to a combination of antiviral medicines used to treat HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). These work by stopping the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and preventing further damage.

Key points

  1. Taking antiretroviral medicines can reduce the amount of virus in your body and help you stay healthy for longer.
  2. Because the virus causing HIV infection can quickly adapt and become resistant to one single medicine, a combination of medicines is used.
  3. Some antiretroviral medicines have been combined into one pill, known as a "fixed-dose combination". This reduces the number of pills you need to take. 
  4. Different combinations of antiviral medicines work better for different people, so the medicine you take will be individual to you.

Examples of antiretroviral therapy

There are currently several classes of antiretrovirals and they all work in different ways against HIV.  

Antiretroviral drug class Examples 
Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors Tenofovir, emtricitabine, abacavir, lamivudine, didanosine, zidovudine
Protease inhibitors Atazanavir, darunavir, indinavir, lopinavir, ritonavir
Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors Efavirenz, etravirine, nevirapine, rilpivirine 

Fixed-dose combinations

Some antiretroviral medicines have been combined into one pill, known as a "fixed-dose combination". This means that the most common treatments for people just diagnosed with HIV involve taking just 1 or 2 pills a day.

Read a complete list of antiretroviral medicines currently available in New Zealand

When to start treatment

There is no set rule on when to start HIV treatments, however, evidence shows that there are health benefits to starting as early after your diagnosis as possible. Your doctor or HIV specialist will be aware of current guidelines and NZ criteria for public funding of the antiretrovirals.

Continuing treatment

Starting treatment for HIV is a long-term commitment. It is important to keep taking your antiviral medication because if you stop taking medication, or do not take it regularly, the virus may become resistant to it. It is important to take your medicines as prescribed and not miss any pills or appointments. You may also need to have regular blood tests.

Side effects

Side effects from antiretroviral therapy can vary depending on the medicine and the person taking the medicine.

People taking the same antiretroviral medications can have very different side effects. Talk to your doctor if your side effects are difficult to manage. Some side effects, for example, headache or occasional dizziness, may not be serious. Other side effects, such as swelling of the mouth and tongue or liver damage, can be life-threatening. 

Common side effects include nausea (feeling sick), diarrhoea (runny or watery poos), skin rashes and sleep difficulties. 

Drug interactions

Antiretroviral medicines can interact with each other, and they can also interact with other medicines prescribed by your doctor or medicines bought over-the-counter. These include herbal remedies such as St John's Wort, as well as recreational drugs. 

An interaction can reduce or increase a medicine's effect on the body. Interactions can also cause side effects. Always check with your HIV clinic staff or your GP before taking any other medicines.

Learn more

HIV treatment New Zealand AIDS Foundation

Credits: Sandra Ponen, pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 21 Dec 2018