Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV, AIDS) (cont.)

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What happens if the patient's viral load increases while on HIV therapy?

If the patient does suppress their virus to undetectable levels on antiviral therapy but then develops detectable virus, several things should be considered. First, it must be established that the patient is taking the medications correctly. If they are missing doses, then every effort must be made to understand why this is happening and correct the situation, if possible. If the poor adherence is a result of drug side effects, efforts should be directed toward managing the side effects or changing to a better-tolerated regimen. If poor adherence is occurring because of the medication schedule of dosing, new strategies should be discussed such as placing medications in a pillbox, associating the dosing with certain daily activities such as tooth brushing, or possibly changing the regimen. Finally, if the reason for poor adherence is depression, substance abuse, or another personal issue, these issues need to be addressed and managed.

It is important to remember that sometimes, for reasons not entirely understood, the viral load can briefly increase. Unexpected increases, therefore, necessitate repeated testing of the viral load before any clinical decisions are made. If, however, the viral load is continually detected despite proper adherence to the prescribed therapy, serious consideration must be given to the possibility that the virus has become resistant to one or more of the medications being given. There is now an abundance of data showing that the use of drug-resistance tests can improve the response to a follow-up regimen. Testing can be used to determine if an individual's HIV has become resistant to one or more of the drugs that are being taken. There are currently two main types of resistance tests available in the clinic: one that is called a genotype and the other a phenotype assay. The former looks for mutations in the virus and the latter the actual amount of drug it takes to block infection by the patient's virus. The genotype test is very helpful in those being screened for the presence of resistant virus prior to initiating treatment and those experiencing viral rebound on one of their first treatment regimens. The phenotype test is particularly useful in those who are highly treatment experienced and have substantial amounts of drug resistance. The information derived from these tests, along with a tropism test will ultimately tell the provider which of the many approved drugs are likely to be fully active against the specific patient's virus. Using this information, the goal is to include at least two and ideally three fully active drugs in the next regimen in order to optimize the chances of suppressing the viral load to undetectable levels.

What are the risks of missing doses or stopping antiviral therapy?

It is strongly advised that individuals on an antiviral regimen not miss any doses of their medications. Unfortunately, life is such that doses often are missed. Reasons for missing doses range from just forgetting to take the medication, leaving town without the medication, or because of a medical emergency, such as the need for urgent surgery. For example, after an appendectomy for acute appendicitis, a patient may not be able to take oral medication for up to several days. When a dose is missed, the patient should contact his or her physician without delay to discuss the course of action. The options in this situation are to take the missed doses immediately or simply resume the drugs with the next scheduled dose.

Although every missed dose increases the chance that the virus will develop resistance to the drugs, a single missed dose should not be cause for alarm. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to learn from the experience and determine why it happened, if it is likely to happen again, and what can be done to minimize missing future doses. Furthermore, if a patient cannot resume medication for a limited time, such as in a medical emergency, there still is no cause for alarm. In this circumstance, the patient should work with their HIV provider to restart therapy as soon as is feasible. Stopping antivirals is associated with some risks of developing drug resistance, and those who wish to stop therapy for any one of a number of reasons should discuss this with their health-care professional in advance to establish the best strategy for safely accomplishing this.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/5/2014

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