Your body’s tough. Its immune system produces protective T (thymus) cells to fight off infection by viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders from outside. Your T-cells step up and squash these malicious invaders before they can wreak havoc and make you sick.
But the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, specifically goes after and kills T-cells. In time, it kills off so many that there aren’t enough left to fight off the usual infections and diseases we’re all exposed to every day. The result is AIDS—acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
When you have AIDS, you can get very sick, very quickly. Overcoming each illness requires monumental effort, and each battle leaves your body weaker. Eventually, one or more diseases or infections take over. Weakened and unable to fight back, you’ll die.
That’s the bleak truth about HIV/AIDS. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So far, medical science hasn’t been able to find a cure for HIV, but antiretroviral treatments (ARVs) inhibit the virus in a number of ways, including its ability to reproduce. ARVs keep your “viral load” under control and your T-cells numerous enough to protect you from other viruses and diseases.
And that’s why it’s so important for you to take your HIV medications exactly as prescribed. Even a single missed dose can allow HIV to replicate and function better, making it that much harder for the ARV to bring it back under control. If you periodically skip doses or stop taking the medication temporarily, you’re setting your body up for AIDS.
Medication non-compliance is a well-known, widespread problem.
Missing medication doses or messing them up can happen to anyone, not just patients living with HIV-infection. Sometimes taking a dose is inconvenient—we’re not near a water source, or we’re otherwise occupied at the time we should be taking them and then forget to take them later. We’re all human. It happens.
Other reasons for ARV non-compliance are more complicated—and potentially more serious. According to a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal LGBT Health, mental health issues like depression, and substance abuse—particularly alcohol and crystal methamphetamine—are prevalent among gay, LGBT, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM). They can have a profound and disastrous effect on an individual’s ability to stick to ARVs.
Just getting through each day can be a huge challenge if you’re suffering from depression, anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mind detaches from normal reasoning. It means that taking medication requiring complicated, closely timed dosing, while not impossible, can be close to it.
Drug and alcohol abuse scrambles the mind and reality—and here, too, adhering to a medication schedule becomes extremely difficult. Addiction to the abused substance further complicates the problem.
If you are living with HIV-infection, ARV non-compliance can have deadly consequences. Here are some tips to help make taking your meds easier:
- Understand what you’re taking. Have your health care provider write down the names of your medications, what each of them looks like, and when and how often you need to take them. Keep this info handy for easy reference.
- Get pillboxes that hold a week’s worth of doses, divided into different times of the day (morning, noon, night, for instance). Fill them at the beginning of each week.
- Plan for changes in your regular routine, such as vacations or evenings out.
- Make sure you always have enough medicine. Refill bottles as soon as you’re able.
- Take your medicines at the same time each day to make taking them a habit.
- If your meds are causing side-effects that make it hard for you to take them, talk to your provider ASAP. They may be able to change the med or suggest ways to cope with the side-effect that helps you comply with dosing.
- If you’re experiencing mental health issues or abusing drugs or alcohol, seek help.
Having HIV-infection is no longer a death sentence. But staying well requires medication, discipline and an understanding of the disease and how it’s treated. Talk to your provider if you have questions.
Leslie Vandever is a professional journalist and freelance writer with more than 25 years of experience. She lives in the foothills of Northern California where she writes for Healthline.
• A Timeline of AIDD. (n.d.) AIDS.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved on June 2, 2014 from http://aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/aids-timeline/
• About HIV/AIDS. (2014, Feb. 12) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on June 3, 2014 from http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html
• Medication Adherence. (2009, Aug. 9) Aids.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved on June 3, 2014 from http://aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/just-diagnosed-with-hiv-aids/treatment-options/medication-adherence/
• Adherence. (n.d.) New Mexico AIDS Education and Training Center. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved on June 3, 2014 from http://www.aidsinfonet.org/fact_sheets/view/405
• White, J. M., et al. The Role of Substance Use and Mental Health Problems in Medication Adherence Among HIV-Infected MSM. (2014, June 6) LGBT Health. Retrieved on June 18, 2014 from http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/lgbt.2014.0020