Get to know the types of HIV medicines

When talking to your doctor about HIV treatments, it may help to understand the six different types of HIV medication and stay up to date with the latest advances in HIV care.

These types, or ‘classes’ of medication as your doctor may call them, all target the virus in different ways. It might help to read our article on how HIV affects your immune system, including CD4 cells, to help you understand how HIV medicines work. You usually need to take a treatment containing drugs from at least two difference classes to best control your HIV.

Your treatment may come in one tablet or be more than one, taken once or twice a day, depending on what you and your doctor agree is most suitable for you.

Select a HIV medication type from the list below to find out more.

If any of the words or phrases below are new to you, it may help you to read our article on HIV and what being undetectable means. An explanation of some of the terms can also be found below.    

  • This medication stops the virus from attaching to the surface of CD4 cells. This prevents HIV from entering the CD4 cell.1    

  • This medication stops the virus from combining with the surface of the CD4 cell. It attaches to CD4 cells differently to entry inhibitors. It prevents HIV from entering the CD4 cell.2    

  • In order for HIV to make more copies of itself, the virus needs to activate its DNA. It does this using an enzyme called reverse transcriptase. Enzymes are molecules in the body that help to speed up chemical reactions.3    

    NRTIs are fake building blocks of DNA. When one of these fake building blocks is added to a growing HIV DNA chain, the real HIV DNA building blocks cannot be added on. This stops HIV RNA being converted into HIV DNA and stops reverse transcriptase from working correctly.3    

  • In order for HIV to make more copies of itself, HIV needs to convert its RNA to DNA by using an enzyme called reverse transcriptase. NNRTIs attach to the reverse transcriptase enzyme, interfering with its ability to convert HIV RNA into HIV DNA.3 

  • This type of medicine interferes with the HIV enzyme integrase, which the virus uses to insert its DNA into the DNA of the CD4 cell it has infected.4    

  • PIs interfere with the HIV enzyme protease. When protease does not work properly, new HIV virus particles cannot be created.5 

Today, there are many HIV medicines available, including ones that are single-tablet combinations. This means that two or more of the above classes of medicines are combined in a single pill. You and your doctor will work together to find the treatment that works best for you. 

Glossary

CD4 cells: A type of cell found in the immune system, which helps to fight infections. If left untreated, HIV can cause the number of CD4 cells to decrease.

DNA: The genetic information of an organism. DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the instructions for an organism to grow and function normally. It’s also important for reproduction. HIV does not store its genetic information as DNA.

Enzyme: A molecule that helps to start and/or speed up a chemical reaction in the body.

Integrase: A type of enzyme. HIV uses integrase to help insert its DNA into the DNA of CD4 cells.

Membrane: The boundary that separates the inside of a cell from the outside environment. Membranes provide protection and allow molecules to pass in and out of cells.

Protease: A type of enzyme. HIV uses protease to build proteins to create more HIV particles.

Reverse transcriptase: A type of enzyme. HIV uses reverse transcriptase to convert its RNA to DNA.

RNA: A long molecule similar to DNA, which some organisms use to store their genetic information. HIV carries its genetic information in the form of RNA.

  1. Briz V, et al. HIV entry inhibitors: mechanisms of action and resistance pathways. J Antimicrob Chemother 2006;57:619–27.
  2. Medicine Net. Fusion Inhibitors. Available at: http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=32105. Last accessed: March 2018
  3. Hu WS, et al. HIV reverse transcription. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med 2012; 2:a006882
  4. Hare S, et al. Molecular mechanisms of retroviral integrase inhibition and the evolution of viral resistance. PNAS 2010; 107: 20057-67
  5. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Protease Inhibitor. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/protease-inhibitor. Last accessed: March 2018