You might not be able to “feel” it working, but the proof is in the numbers.
In a way, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a silent disease. It can infect you and replicate in your blood, you might not even feel it. Because of this, a person may not know they’re infected until it’s too late, and they can pass it on to someone else. The same is true with your HIV medication.
For the most part, you probably won’t “feel” your medicine working. It’s not like taking ibuprofen for a headache: You aren’t trying to relieve or get rid of a symptom. This can make it difficult to gage progress when managing your HIV. Is the medication doing anything? Is your condition under control? Are you at risk of progressing to AIDS?
However, there are a few things that can indicate if your HIV medicine is doing its job.
Tests to Know If Your HIV Medication Is Working
In order to see where you currently stand, a doctor will run two tests: a CD4 count and your viral load. Both of these are blood tests. These are ways of looking to see how strong your immune system is and how well the medication is controlling the HIV in your body.
The goal is to have a low viral load and a normal CD4 count. Viral load refers to how much HIV is in your bloodstream, so if it stays low, that means the medication is preventing the virus from replication (which is good). A normal CD4 count means the virus isn’t compromising your immune system by killing off your CD4 T cells. Ideally, your CD4 count will remain at the same level as someone without HIV.
Signs the Medicine Isn’t Working
If a person has an extremely high viral load, their bodies may be able to feel it. HIV medication should prevent this; however, a high viral load may mean your medicine isn’t working.
Symptoms that can happen if you have a very high viral load include:
- Feeling extremely tired or disoriented
- Muscle aches
If you’re taking HIV medication, it shouldn’t get to this point. You should be seeing your doctor regularly for blood tests to monitor your treatment. Likely, your doctor will notice if your medication isn’t working (and change your treatment) before your viral load gets this high.
In other words, don’t wait until you feel crappy to figure out whether your medication is working or not. Call your doctor and get blood work done regularly as it is the safest and best way to find out.
Taking Care of Yourself
Another important thing to remember is that it’s critical for a patient to continue taking their HIV medicine as prescribed. This is true even if they feel like they are perfectly healthy and feeling good. After all, HIV is a disease that likes to pretend that it's not there (until it’s in a serious phase).
Taking your HIV medication, whether you feel them working or not ensures that you are protecting yourself long term. If you’re concerned about your HIV medication, talk to your doctor.
Stella A. Safo, MD, is an HIV primary care physician and assistant professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.