HIV in Canada: A primer for service providers


Side Effects

Key Points

  • Although HIV therapy is generally safe and effective, both short-term and long-term side effects may occur.
  • While some side effects can be managed successfully, others may necessitate a switch in treatment.

As with any medication, antiretroviral therapy (ART) can result in side effects ranging from minor to life threatening (in rare cases). Newer medications generally have fewer side effects than older drugs. If side effects occur, they may be short term and lessen or disappear after a few weeks or months. These types of side effects are often associated with starting a new medication. Short-term side effects may include nausea, diarrhea, headache and rash. Side effects may also be long term, slowly affecting specific parts of the body, such as the heart, bones or kidneys. 

It is important people with HIV discuss all their symptoms with their doctors so that they can be properly diagnosed. Some symptoms that appear to be side effects of a particular drug may turn out to have a different cause. Side effects play an important role when choosing treatment. Short-term side effects are generally common across all medications, while other side effects may be drug or class specific. Selection of anti-HIV drugs will often depend on an individual’s lifestyle, family medical history, history of ART usage, HIV drug resistance testing and personal preferences. In spite of all of the knowledge about these drugs, each individual’s response is different, and what works for one person may not work for another.

Different strategies may be used to manage the symptoms of side effects and improve quality of life, ranging from pharmaceutical solutions to complementary therapies to changes in lifestyle. Side effects that are intolerable should be taken seriously because they may lead to non-adherence. Intolerable side effects may require a treatment switch, assuming other treatment options are available.


Side Effects

A Practical Guide to HIV Drug Side Effects

A Practical Guide to a Healthy Body for People Living with HIV


CATIE. A Practical Guide to HIV Drug Side Effects. Toronto: CATIE; 2013. Available from

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