What Happens when you stop taking HIV Medications?

What Happens to a Patient Who Suddenly Stops Taking HIV Medications?
The medications used to control HIV help the body to produce and retain the white blood cells necessary to fight infection. Once a patient stops that medication, the virus will begin attacking those cells again, leaving the patient susceptible to infection. It is those secondary infections which typically result in the death of the patient, not the AIDS virus.

Nurses who regularly treat patients with HIV should be aware of the implications of stopping treatment and be schooled in talking to patients about them. HIV medication is a life-long commitment on the part of the patient, where missing even one dose could have harmful consequences. Recognizing patients who are at risk for stopping medications and developing counseling skills are invaluable assets of a nurse for effective HIV treatment.

Missing a dose of HIV medication could lead to resistance to the drug which will make the virus harder to treat in the patient. Provide patients with information on how to stick with their drug regime. This could include advice such as:

  • Refilling prescriptions in advance
  • Setting alarms to remind them of the right time to take meds
  • Taping notes as reminders
  • Keeping medications easily accessible and organized
  • Letting a trusted friend or family member know where medication is kept in case of an emergency
  • Traveling with HIV medications in carry-on luggage

HIV Patients are at a High Risk For Stopping Medication

According to the program director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Special Health Initiatives, HIV patients are at a higher risk for not taking their medications as prescribed. The reasons cited for this include:

  • The need for multiple drugs to be taken at different times
  • Side effects of some drugs which can make a patient feel worse
  • A sense that feeling good means that they no longer need the meds
  • A lack of knowledge in the implications of drug resistance when medication is suddenly stopped
  • Not being committed to long term drug therapy to control the virus

If a patient does express to you that they wish to discontinue their HIV drug therapy for any reason, it is your responsibility to immediately refer them to their treating physician. In this way, a treatment plan may be discussed that better meets their personal needs while still protecting them from developing life threatening infections.

When Religious Beliefs Interfere With HIV Treatment

The truth is religion does not prohibit medical treatments, with the exception of blood transfusions. If you do happen to encounter an HIV patient who is declining treatment due to religious beliefs, your only recourse is to provide them with counseling. As a nurse, you are not permitted to intervene in a patient’s religious practices, even if they are not in line with what is best for their health.

The health risk in stopping HIV medication are not. If your career as a nurse exposes you to patients who are living with HIV, it is your responsibility to understand what is at stake when medication is stopped, and know how to effectively relay that information to your patients.

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