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What to expect when taking ARVs

Starting antiretroviral treatment can be daunting for those with HIV. Here’s what to expect in terms of side effects.

09 April 2015
by Carla Hüsselmann

They can’t cure you but antiretroviral drugs are the best way to ensure that you live a healthy and longer life if you’re HIV-positive. These drugs need to be taken every single day for the rest of your life to slow down or prevent damage to your immune system, and reduce the risk of developing AIDS-related illnesses. Even one missed dose increases the risk that the drugs will stop working.

Unfortunately, as with all chronic medication, there is the risk of experiencing mild to more severe side effects when taking ARVs. “Not everyone experiences side effects when starting on ARVs,” says Dr Funeka Bango, an HIV/AIDS researcher from the University of Cape Town. 

“Some patients may feel unwell for a few days, while others experience side effects for a few weeks. It’s unfortunately difficult to give timelines to side effects, as it usually depends on the patient as well as the drugs they’re on.”

Better tolerated medications

Thankfully the newer medications that are now being administered in South Africa have less side effects. “The current fixed-dose combination tablet which contains tenofovir, lamivudine/emtricitabine and efavirenz for first-line therapy is generally well-tolerated,” confirms Dr Bango. “Fortunately healthcare practitioners no longer prescribe d4T, which presented severe long-term side effects, for example, lipoatrophy, a condition that leads to serious body shape changes due to fat loss in the face, limbs and buttocks.”

Efavirenz is the drug most likely to cause side effects including dizziness and very vivid dreams. Tenofovir is generally well tolerated, unless you have kidney disease, and lamivudine/emtricitabine hardly causes any side effects.

Always communicate with your healthcare provider

“However, it’s crucial to actively manage side effects, so patients must visit their healthcare provider if any side effects continue for more than a few weeks, or if they worsen,” advises Dr Bango. It’s usually easy to manage side effects and this may require blood tests, or giving medication to treat the side effects. Sometimes a change in your drug regimen is needed.

“Most patients do find the prospect of life-long therapy unnerving. However, keep in mind what the big picture is: you can live a longer and healthy life. With that said, you can only take the journey one day at a time,” says Dr Bango.

How Clicks Clinics can help you

Did you know Clicks offers HIV testing and counselling at their clinics? To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or book online at Clicks Clinics online

HIV home test kits are also available for purchase in-store.

Shop online at Clicks.co.za for condoms 

Don't be caught unawares – rather stock up on condoms so that you can ensure you're practising safe sex at all times.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

Read More: HIV/AIDS Super Section