What HIV Treatment Is Really Like, According to Patients

From cocktails to shots, HIV treatment today let’s you join the one-pill-a-day club—no sweat.

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“AZT break”—it’s the line that stops the popular musical Rent in its tracks. AZT, or azidothymidine, was one of the early options for HIV treatment. This lyric leads to the climax of a love story between two protagonists hiding, and then disclosing, their HIV statuses and their feelings for one another.

But the reality of this early HIV “cocktail” wasn’t so romantic. It left millions of patients sicker than when they started or completely turned off from seeking life-saving treatment. Today, there are several options for people living with HIV, from one pill a day to a monthly shot. These options for HIV treatment not only improve their immune system and quality of life, but help them live undetectable, untransmittable, and ultimately unbound lives.

The Real Truth About HIV Treatment Options—From Five People Thriving On Them

The Cocktails of Old Were No Joke

“I’ve been on a whole alphabet of things, you know, ABC to XYZ, all kinds of things. My last cocktail was about 42 pills. That’s a lot of pills. ”

—Reginald Brown, diagnosed with HIV in 1986

What a Difference 40 Years Can Make

“Back then it was like this whole treatment. The main difference was that it messed with your body and your mind. Like, you felt the bone deterioration, [and] you could feel it sucking the nutrients out of your body. It was like chemo with cancer: Sometimes it kills the cancer, sometimes it kills you.”

“Now, it’s literally like taking a vitamin. Day to day, you know, I have asthma—I feel the effects of that way more than I do any effects of HIV.”

—Darnell White, diagnosed with HIV in 1994

“For me, just knowing that it’s just a pill I have to take every night, it’s great. Yes it’s a disease, but it doesn’t have to be a reason to hate someone, or to feel bad for someone. It’s just something that they’re living with. ”

—David LaMarr, diagnosed with HIV in 2019

It’s a Privilege Now To Benefit from the Advancements Made

“I’m living with HIV, and Nathan’s not, and we’ve been doing that for about nine years. You know, when I was diagnosed, I honestly couldn’t see past the end of the day. I couldn’t see it. All I could see was getting to that first doctor’s appointment and starting medication.

“I am so thankful to be living with HIV now. I recognize that [this] privilege exists because of all of the people who have been living with HIV, and who contributed to the development of the drugs that exist today, who made it possible for someone like me to be living with HIV, but not have to think about it. To really boil it down to a pill a day, or a shot a month, and that is it.”

—Richard Walsh, diagnosed with HIV in 2012

“There’s a big push right now to educate our communities about what ‘U equals U’ means. ‘Undetectable means untransmittable.’ Once you are undetectable, you are unable to transmit HIV to another person through sexual contact.”
—Nathan Walsh, HIV Negative in a serodiscordant relationship

The Most Important Thing Is to Stick with It

“So when I first got diagnosed, I was put on treatment right away. When I started it out, I actually had to take four different pills. Let’s fast forward to now, I take one pill a day! If you want to get to that undetectable state, you have to take your medication every day. Adhering to your medication, you know, keeps HIV at bay, keeps your viral load undetectable. It gives you autonomy over your life, over yourself, and you can live a normal life.”

“I was able to give birth to two HIV negative because of me adhering to my medication and because of how far the science [has] come. If you are HIV positive and you want to become pregnant, you can, and you can have a healthy baby if you keep doing what you are supposed to do.”
—Thamicha Isaac, diagnosed with HIV in 2003

Unsure whether your HIV treatment is right for you? Find an HIV specialist or doctor you trust and ask them these questions about HIV medication.