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What is a Drug Interaction?

Last Reviewed: March 13, 2017

Key Points

  • A drug interaction is a reaction between two (or more) drugs or between a drug and a food or beverage.
  • A drug interaction can decrease or increase the action of a drug or cause unwanted side effects.
  • Having an existing medical condition can also cause a drug interaction. For example, taking a nasal decongestant if you have high blood pressure may cause an unwanted reaction.
  • Treatment with HIV medicines (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. But drug interactions can complicate HIV treatment.
  • To avoid drug interactions, tell your health care provider about all prescription and nonprescription medicines, vitamins, nutritional supplements, and herbal products you are taking or plan to take.

What is a drug interaction?

A drug interaction is a reaction between two (or more) drugs (called a drug-drug interaction) or between a drug and a food or beverage (called a drug-food interaction). An existing medical condition can make certain drugs potentially harmful (called a drug-condition interaction). For example, taking a nasal decongestant if you have high blood pressure may cause an unwanted reaction.

Medicines help us feel better and stay healthy. But drug interactions can cause problems by reducing or increasing the action of a medicine or causing adverse (unwanted) side effects.

 

Are drug interactions a problem for people with HIV?

Treatment with HIV medicines (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) helps people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. But drug interactions, especially drug-drug interactions, can complicate HIV treatment.

Drug-drug interactions between HIV medicines are common. Interactions between HIV medicines may reduce or increase the concentration of an HIV medicine in the blood. The change in concentration can make the affected HIV medicine less effective, more effective, or so strong that it causes dangerous side effects. 

Drug-drug interactions between HIV medicines and other medicines are also common. For example, some HIV medicines may make hormonal birth control less effective. Women using hormonal contraceptives may need to use an additional or different method of birth control to prevent pregnancy. For more information about using birth control and HIV medicines at the same time, view the AIDSinfo HIV and Birth Control infographic. 

Can drug-food interactions and drug-condition interactions affect people with HIV?

Yes, the use of HIV medicines can lead to both drug-food interactions and drug-condition interactions. 

Food or beverages can affect the absorption of some HIV medicines and increase or reduce the concentration of the medicine in the blood. Depending on the HIV medicine, the change in concentration may be helpful or harmful. Instructions for HIV medicines affected by food specify whether to take the medicine with or without food. (HIV medicines not affected by food can be taken with or without food.)

Pregnancy is a condition that can affect how the body processes HIV medicines. Because of these pregnancy-related changes, dosing of an HIV medicine may change during different stages of pregnancy. But pregnant women should always consult with their health care providers before making any changes to their HIV regimens.

How can I avoid drug interactions?

You can take the following steps to avoid drug interactions:

  • Tell your health care provider about all prescription and nonprescription medicines you are taking or plan to take. Also tell your health care provider about any vitamins, nutritional supplements, and herbal products you take.
  • Before taking a medicine, ask your health care provider or pharmacist the following questions:
    • What is the medicine used for?
    • How should I take the medicine?
    • While taking the medicine, should I avoid any other medicines or certain foods or beverages?
    • Can I take this medicine safely with the other medicines that I am taking? Are there any possible drug interactions I should know about? What are the signs of those drug interactions?
    • In the case of a drug interaction, what should I do? 
  • Take medicines according to your health care provider’s instructions. Always read the information and directions that come with a medicine. Drug labels and package inserts include important information about possible drug interactions. 
  • Tell your health care provider if you have any side effect that bothers you or that does not go away.

Learn more about drug interactions.

Read the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Drug Interactions: What You Should Know webpage.

Browse the AIDSinfo Drug Database to find information on FDA-approved and investigational HIV/AIDS-related drugs, including information on drug interactions.

This fact sheet is based on information from the following sources:

  • From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in HIV-1-Infected Adults and Adolescents:
  • From FDA: Avoiding Drug Interactions
  • From the National Institutes of Health (NIH) SeniorHealth.gov: Taking Medicines

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