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Medication Adherence

Treatment Adherence

“Treatment adherence” is a fancy phrase that means taking your HIV drugs when and how you are supposed to. Treatment adherence is extremely important because it affects how well your HIV medications decrease your viral load. The lower your viral load, the healthier you are likely to be.

Adherence also helps to prevent drug resistance. If you skip a dose of your medication—even once—the virus can take that opportunity to replicate, and make more HIV. When you skip doses, you may develop strains of HIV that are resistant to the medications you are currently taking—and possibly even to medications you haven’t taken yet. If this happens, it could leave you with fewer treatment options.

Establishing Treatment Adherence

Before you begin an HIV treatment regimen, there are several steps you can take to help you with adherence:

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about your treatment plan and develop a plan that works for you.
  • Be sure you understand why adherence is so important. When you know the possible consequences if you don’t adhere to your treatment plan, you may be more motivated to stick with it.
  • Get a written copy of your treatment plan that lists each of your medications and describes how and when to take them.
  • Learn all the possible side effects of your medications so that you know what to expect and how to manage any problems.
  • Adherence can be harder if you are dealing with life challenges, like substance abuse/alcoholism, unstable housing, mental illness, relationship issues, or other issues. Talk to your doctor about any challenges you may be facing that could affect your ability to take your HIV meds.
  • Consider a "dry run." Use candy or vitamins to practice your treatment regimen.
  • Schedule taking your medications around your daily routines. That can make it easier to remember and stick to your regimen.
  • Ask your provider about the possibility of stopping treatment for a period of time. These treatment interruptions are sometimes called “drug holidays.” These holidays should only be decided upon in agreement with your HIV care provider.

Maintaining Treatment Adherence

Sticking to your treatment schedule takes discipline. But the more you do something, the easier it gets, and HIV treatment is no different. Here are some ideas that may help you stick to your HIV treatment plan:

  • Take your medication at the same time each day and keep it in the same place. Try having your computer or cell phone send you an automatic reminder that it’s time to take your meds!
  • At the beginning of each week, put your week's worth of medication in a pill organizer box. (You can get boxes that have compartments for different time periods for each day of the week.) You can use the organizer to adjust for possible changes in routine, like holidays, vacations, etc. Doing this will help you keep track of which meds you’ve taken.
  • Watch your supply of medication. Contact your healthcare provider or clinic if your supply will not last until your next visit.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is adherence difficult for many people who are living with HIV?

HIV treatment regimens can be complicated. Most regimens involve taking multiple pills each day. Some HIV medications must be taken on an empty stomach, while others must be taken with meals, or before or after doses of other medications. This can be difficult for many people, especially for those who might be ill or experiencing negative side effects caused by their medications.

For more information, see AIDSinfo’s What is Treatment Adherence?

What should I do if I have problems adhering to my treatment regimen?

It’s important that you tell your healthcare provider right away if you are having problems sticking with your treatment plan. If you are experiencing unpleasant side effects, your care provider may need to adjust your dosages or change the drugs you are taking. If you’re missing doses, it may be a sign that your treatment plan is too complicated or unrealistic for you to follow. Being honest with your care provider will help you find workable options and get the most out of your treatment.

For more information, see AIDSinfo’s Adhering to My Treatment Regimen.

Additional Resources

Last revised: 08/07/2009