What Should I Know About Antiretroviral Therapy?

A Look at Antiretroviral Therapy

Tablet on a plate, highly active antiretroviral therapy, HAART, management of HIV
Martin Dr. Baumgaertner/imageBROKER/Getty Images



Medical Specialties:

Allergy/immunology, Family practice, Internal medicine, Infectious disease

Clinical Definition:

Antiretroviral therapy, or ART, is treatment with drugs that hamper the ability of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other types of retroviruses to replicate in the body. Combining several ART drugs, known as highly active ART or HAART, can reduce viral particles in the blood.

In Our Own Words:

Antiretroviral therapy or ART is the use of drugs that hamper the ability of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, or other types of viruses also known as retroviruses, to replicate in the body.

Combining several ART drugs, an approach known as HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) has been effective in decreasing the number of HIV particles in the blood, called plasma viral load. Research suggests those who are infected with HIV who have undetectable viral loads are less infectious.

A Closer Look at Antiretroviral therapy

In the 1980s and 1990s, almost everyone with HIV/AIDS died. Currently, there are several million people taking combination antiretroviral therapy to suppress this disease, and many live healthy lives with near-normal life expectancies.

Combination antiretroviral therapy both prevents progression of HIV to AIDS and prolongs life in those taking these medications.

As of 2009, there were 24 antiretroviral drugs approved in the United States. Because these drugs are usually taken as a combination of 3 medications, there are several thousand possible combinations of these drugs possible. All these medication possibilities combined with the variability of how HIV/AIDS can present make the clinical management of people with this disease challenging, which explains why many people with this disease are treated by physicians who specifically specialize in HIV/AIDS medicine.

Physicians who treat HIV/AIDS with combination antiretroviral therapy must carefully consider how these drugs control virus replication. Furthermore, the improper administration or use of these drugs may result in drug resistance.

In recent years, the focus of treatment for HIV/AIDS has shifted from efficacy to long-term convenience, safety and tolerability. Nowadays, there are single pill therapies combination therapies that are fixed dose and can be taken once a day.

In recent years, more people living in developing nations have been given access to combination antiretroviral drugs. For instance, more than 3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are currently taking these drugs. The increased availability of these drugs to people in developing nations is due to increases in foreign aid, the production of generic medications and the willingness of pharmaceutical companies to help with this problem.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Effect of Antiretroviral Therapy on Risk of Sexual Transmission of HIV Infection and Superinfection." HIV Prevention. April 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/prevention/research/art/. Accessed November 2013.

University of Maryland Medical Center. "AIDS." Medical encyclopedia. May 2013. Accessed November 2013.

University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center. "Dictionary of Cancer Terms." 2011.

http://www.umgcc.org/patient_info/dictionaryEn/definition/antiretroviral-therapy.htm. Accessed November 2013.

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