Learn about the medication used to treat HIV in Canada, as well as any side affects.

Most people with HIV can stay healthy and live a long life with proper care and treatment. Learn about your options and the medication used to treat HIV in Canada, as well as any side effects.

How is HIV treated?

Treatment for HIV involves taking a combination of prescribed drugs every day. These drugs work by stopping the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and preventing further damage. These medicines come in the form of tablets, and it is vital that these be taken every day in order to work. Because there is currently no cure for HIV, treatment continues for life.

It’s important to start treatment right away, before the virus causes too much damage to your immune system.

People with HIV can also make changes to their lifestyle that can help them live with the virus, including:

  • Eating well
  • Exercising
  • Reducing or stopping drugs and alcohol intake
  • Quitting smoking

Preparing for HIV treatment

CATIE’s guide to preparing to start treatment is a useful resource to help you prepare for HIV treatment. It contains information concerning your pill-taking schedule, how to manage any impact on your work and social life, side effects, and more.

When to start treatment

Research shows that the best time to start treatment is as soon as possible after your diagnosis. It’s the best way to help you live a long, healthy life. If you delay treatment, you risk becoming seriously ill with cancer, heart disease or life-threatening infections.

Starting treatment as soon as possible reduces the damage the virus can do to your immune system.

Starting early is especially important for people who:

  • Are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant
  • Are over 50 years old
  • Have had a serious HIV-related illness
  • Have had serious problems with memory or thinking clearly
  • Have a low or rapidly-dropping CD4 count (your CD4 count indicates how well your immune system is working)
  • Have a high viral load (the amount of HIV virus in your bloodstream)
  • Are co-infected with hepatitis B, hepatitis C or tuberculosis

Learn more about starting HIV treatment.

What medication is used to treat HIV in Canada?

The drugs used to treat HIV are called antiretrovirals. Treatment involves combining several drugs, and is known as highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). In B.C., HAART is free. It is prescribed by a doctor who has expertise in HIV.

Your doctor will choose the right combination of medication for you, depending on several factors:

  • How well they reduce the amount of HIV in your blood (your viral load).
  • How resistant the virus is likely to be to certain medication.
  • Likely side effects and your ability to cope with them.

View the full list of HIV medication.

What are the side effects?

You may experience side effects when taking HIV medication. Your doctor will take the likely side effects into account when choosing your medication. It’s important to tell your doctor about any side effects you experience so they can adjust your medication.

Common side effects include:

  • Body weight and body shape changes
  • Diarrhea, gas and bloating
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional problems
  • Headaches

Read CATIE’s Practical Guide to HIV Drug Side Effects for a full list of side effects and how to deal with them.