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Side Effects of HIV Medicines

HIV Medicines and Side Effects

(Last updated 9/30/2013; last reviewed 9/30/2013)

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Key Points

  • HIV medicines help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. Sometimes HIV medicines can also cause side effects. Most side effects from HIV medicines are manageable, but a few can be very serious. 
  • Different HIV medicines can cause different side effects. In addition, people taking the same HIV medicine can have very different side effects. 
  • If you are taking HIV medicines, tell your health care provider about any side effects that you are having. Some side effects, for example headache or occasional dizziness, may not be serious. Other side effects, such as swelling of the mouth and tongue or damage to the liver, can be life-threatening. However, do NOT cut down on, skip, or stop taking your HIV medicines unless your health care provider tells you to.
  • When side effects from HIV medicines become unbearable or life-threatening, it’s time to change medicines. Fortunately, there are more than 20 HIV medicines available to include in an HIV regimen. The choice of HIV medicines to replace those causing side effects will depend on a person’s individual needs.

Can HIV medicines cause side effects?

HIV medicines help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. Sometimes HIV medicines can also cause side effects. Most side effects from HIV medicines are manageable, but a few can be very serious. If you are taking HIV medicines, tell your health care provider about any side effects that you are having. 

Different HIV medicines can cause different side effects. In addition, people taking the same HIV medicine can have very different side effects. 

Some side effects, for example headache or occasional dizziness, may not be serious. Other side effects, such as swelling of the mouth and tongue or damage to the liver, can be life threatening. 

Side effects from HIV medicines can last only a few days or weeks or continue for a much longer time. Some side effects may not appear until many months or even years after starting an HIV medicine.

What are common short-term side effects from HIV medicines?

When starting an HIV medicine for the first time, it’s common to have side effects that last a couple of weeks. These short-term side effects can include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Nausea (upset stomach)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Muscle pain
  • Occasional dizziness

Sometimes, side effects that may not seem serious, such as fever, rash, nausea, or fatigue can be a sign of a life-threatening condition. Any swelling of the face, eyes, lips, or tongue is considered a life-threatening side effect that requires immediate medical attention. If you are taking HIV medicines, tell your health care provider about any side effects that you are having. Do NOT cut down on, skip, or stop taking your HIV medicines unless your health care provider tells you to. Stopping HIV medicines allows HIV to multiply and damage the immune system. This increases the risk of infections and cancer. Stopping HIV medicines also increases the risk of drug resistance

What are some long-term side effects from HIV medicines?

Some side effects from HIV medicines appear months or even years after starting a medicine and continue for a long time. Examples of long-term side effects include:

What are ways to manage side effects from HIV medicines?

When taking HIV medicines, it helps to plan ahead. If you are starting HIV medicines, talk to your health care provider about possible side effects. Tell your health care provider about your lifestyle and point out any possible side effects that would be especially hard for you to manage. The information will help your health care provider recommend medicines best suited to your needs.

Depending on the HIV medicines you take, your health care provider will:

  • Tell you which specific side effects to look out for.
  • Offer you suggestions on how to deal with those side effects. For example, to manage nausea and vomiting, eat smaller meals more often and avoid spicy foods.
  • Tell you about the signs of life-threatening side effects (for example, swelling of the mouth and tongue) that require immediate medical attention.

When side effects from HIV medicines become unbearable or life-threatening, it’s time to change medicines. Fortunately, there are more than 20 HIV medicines available to include in an HIV regimen. The choice of HIV medicines to replace those causing side effects will depend on a person’s individual needs.

How can I learn more about HIV medicines and side effects?

  • Read the AIDSinfo fact sheets on specific side effects from HIV medicines. 
  • Use the AIDSinfo drug database to find easy-to-understand information about HIV-related medicines. For help using the drug database, call an AIDSinfo health information specialist at 1-800-448-0440.

This fact sheet is based on information from the following sources: