How ARVs Suppress HIV

The drugs that suppress or control HIV are called antiretrovirals or ARVs for short. ARVs work by stopping HIV from hijacking the body’s CD4 cells to make more HIV. ARVs do two things:

  1. They stop HIV from making more copies of itself
  2. They stop HIV from destroying CD4 cells (the immune system)

This is why when ARVs are taken properly, the viral load goes down, which means there is less HIV in the blood and body. And, at the same time, the CD4 count goes up and the immune system recovers and becomes strong again.

There are many different kinds of ARVs. To suppress HIV properly and stop it from multiplying, three different ARVs must be taken together.

Sometimes the three ARV drugs used to suppress HIV are combined in one pill that is taken once a day, this is called a Fixed-Dose Combination (FDC). The three ARV drugs can also be taken as two or three separate pills, taken once or twice a day.

The combination of different ARVs is called Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) or an HIV medication regimen. These different drugs put up roadblocks that stop HIV to make sure that it can’t hijack CD4 cells. The different ARV drugs stop HIV when:

  1. It is entering the CD4 Cell
  2. It is inside the CD4 cell
  3. It is ready to release the new copies of HIV from the CD4 cell

There is no cure for HIV. Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) is the only way to control and suppress HIV to stay healthy. If a person stops taking their ART, HIV will take the chance to start making copies of itself again.

Know your ARVs

ARVs have chemical names and brand names. It is important to know the difference.

The chemical name of the ARV drug is the chemical ingredient or recipe it is made of. This is the ingredient that is doing the work of suppressing HIV.

The brand name is the name that the pharmaceutical company gives the drug.

Two different pharmaceutical companies can make the same ARV drug with the same chemical ingredients but each of them will give their drugs different brand names. The pills might be different colours or shapes, and come in a different package, but they have exactly the same chemical ingredient in them. To understand this, it can help to think about how ARVs and their chemical and brand names are a bit like cars: All cars have the same parts and serve the same purpose but there are many different types or brands of cars which look different and are made by different car companies.

**The most important thing is the chemical name of the ARV drug because an ARV drug can have many Brand Names**

Chemical name

Brand name

















FIXED DOSE COMBINATION (FDC) ARVs = 2 or more ARVs in 1 pill

Chemical Name

Brand Name

Emtricitabine + Tenofovir


Lopinavir + Ritonavir

Aluvia or Kaletra

Tenofovir + Emtricitabine + Efavirenz

Atripla, Atroiza, Odimune, Tribuss, Trutiva


Is it true that in the long run ARVs make people more sick?

Today’s ARVs have a low risk of side effects.  Some of the conditions that people experience happen because of HIV, or as a result of natural ageing, and not the ARVs.

Depending on which ARVs are being taken and what their possible long-term side effects are, there are other blood tests that might be included at the clinic, such as: a full blood count ; tests that measure liver function, kidney function, blood sugar levels, cholesterol; and heart function. One may also be screened for TB, hepatitis and other illnesses associated with HIV. The risk of some of these conditions, like heart disease, is in fact higher if someone is not on ART. A health care worker at the clinic will decide if any of these additional tests are needed.