PEP: Post-Exposure Prophylaxis
At The Damien Center, we’re always looking for new tools to add to our HIV prevention toolbox. Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) are two of those tools. To find out if PEP is right for you, read more below and contact us.
What is PEP?
PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis. It involves taking antiretroviral medicines as soon as possible, but no more than 72 hours (three days) after your potential exposure to HIV. The purpose of PEP is to try to reduce the likelihood of contracting HIV+. These medicines keep HIV from making copies of itself and spreading throughout the body. Two to three drugs are usually prescribed, and they must be taken for 28 days. PEP is not always effective; it does not guarantee that someone exposed to HIV will not become infected with HIV.
Is PEP right for me?
PEP is for anyone who may have been exposed to HIV very recently during a single event. It is not the right choice for people who may be exposed to HIV frequently. See “Can I take a round of PEP every time I have unprotected sex?” for more information.
Your health care provider will consider whether PEP is right for you based on the risk of your exposure. Health care workers are evaluated for PEP if they are exposed to blood or body fluids of a patient who is infected with HIV. The risk of getting HIV infection this way is less than 1 in 100 exposures.
PEP can also be used to treat people who may have been exposed to HIV during a single event unrelated to work (e.g., unprotected sex, needle-sharing injection drug use, or sexual assault).
Keep in mind that PEP should only be used in situations right after a potential HIV exposure. It is not a substitute for regular use of other proven HIV prevention methods, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), correct and consistent condom use, or use of sterile injection equipment.
If you are prescribed PEP, you will be asked to return for HIV testing at four to six weeks, three months, and six months after the potential exposure to HIV. Because PEP is not always effective, you should keep using condoms with sex partners while taking PEP and should not share injection equipment with others.
When Should I Take PEP?
PEP treatment must begin within 72 hours of exposure, before the virus has time to make too many copies of itself in your body. Starting PEP as soon as possible after a potential HIV exposure is important: research has shown that PEP has little or no effect in preventing HIV infection if it is started more than 72 hours after HIV exposure. HIV makes copies of itself once it enters the body, and it takes about three days for it to spread through the body. When HIV is only in a few cells of the body, it can sometimes be stopped by PEP, but when it is in many cells, PEP will not work. Two to three drugs are usually prescribed, and they must be taken for 28 days.