How Does Antiretroviral Therapy Work?

November 12, 2012

How Does Antiretroviral Therapy Work?

Antiretroviral therapy, or ART, refers to the treatment of retroviral infections, such as HIV, with drugs by slowing down the virus’ growth instead of killing it altogether.

The Life Cycle of HIV

- The virus makes it around inside the bloodstream.

- The virus attaches itself to a cell.

- The virus leaves all of its contents with the cell.

– A genetic code comes into play to build up HIV DNA.

- This DNA is left inside the cell and creates an infection.

- The infected cell activates this DNA after it reproduces to create new material for other HIV viruses.

- Immature viruses will leave the infected cells and break free.

– A new virus will mature.

The Different Antiretroviral Drugs

Every kind of antiretroviral drugs tends to attack the HIV virus differently. The first class drugs, for example, block the fourth step where the genetic code builds up HIV DNA. These drugs are called nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs), or nukes. Another kind of antiretroviral drugs block the fourth step, block the same step, but differently. These drugs are called non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs), or non-nukes. The third kind of antiretroviral drugs block the last step where the new virus matures. These drugs are called protease inhibitors (PIs).

The latest kinds of antiretroviral drugs are the entry inhibitors that stop the virus from attaching itself to a cell and the integrase inhibitors that stop DNA from creating an infection inside a cell.

Most of the time, these drugs are combined and used in combined antiretroviral therapy because it works better than using a single kind of drug on its own. Plus, this type of therapy can prevent the user’s resistance to drugs at the same time.

A Cure for HIV?

Right now, there are no known cures for HIV infections. Although antiretroviral therapy can successfully reduce the load of the virus in the bloodstream and can help people with HIV stay healthier for longer, it cannot actually cure the infection itself. Also, although some people might end up with an extraordinarily low load of the virus after the therapy, this doesn’t mean that the virus is completely gone, nor does it mean that the person no longer has HIV.

How to Start

There is no set answer for this particular question. However, the majority of doctors will take your symptoms and CD4 cell count into consideration before starting your antiretroviral therapy.

Before starting your therapy, you will also need to keep in mind that antiretroviral drugs all come with some sort of side effects, some of which are serious and some of which aren’t. Also, some drug combinations are much easier to tolerate compared to others, while other combinations are more effective compared to others. Every person is different, though, so you will have to discuss your options with your doctor in full detail yourself.

Naturally, you will have to take a test every now and then to find out of your choice of antiretroviral therapy is actually working. If your viral load refuses to go down or eventually goes back up after all, you might want to start trying out other drugs instead.


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