Key Things to Know about PEP

Currently, there isn't a cure for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). But, if you have been exposed or think you may have been exposed to the virus, there is a short-term course of treatment available that can help reduce your risk of acquiring it. This treatment is called post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP.

What is PEP?

Post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, is a treatment course of antiretroviral drugs (ART) taken after exposure or potential exposure to HIV to help reduce the risk of infection. PEP is not effective if the individual is already HIV-positive.

PEP is taken after possible exposure to HIV

PEP is able to be taken up to 72 hours of possible exposure to HIV, but it is preferable to start it as soon as possible.1 After 72 hours post-exposure, the treatment is not effective. Once PEP is started, the medications are taken once or twice daily for 28 days.1 It is only used in emergency situations and is not appropriate for regular use. Emergency situations may include exposure to HIV if you are a healthcare worker, if you were sexually assaulted, if needles were shared, or if you were exposed during sex.

What medications are in PEP?

PEP is typically a combination of several antiretroviral (ART) drugs that are used to treat HIV. The exact drugs and dosages can vary, depending on who is taking the drug and accounting for certain health conditions like if a person is pregnant or has kidney problems.2

Recommended medication combinations for PEP

For adults, the recommended PEP drugs are tenofovir combined with either lamivudine (3TC) or emtricitabine (FTC), along with ritonavir-boosted lopinavir (LPV/r).3 For children, the recommended PEP medications are zidovidune (AZT) and lamivudine (3TC), along with ritonavir-boosted lopinavir (LPV/r).3

Side effects

When taking PEP, you may experience side effects from the medication. Talk with your doctor if you notice any side effects that bother you. Before starting PEP, tell the doctor about all medications and supplements that you take, as the medications in PEP may interact with other medications.

Where can I get PEP?

A health care provider or the emergency room will determine whether PEP is appropriate for you. You do need a prescription for PEP; if you think you may have been exposed to HIV, contact your health care provider immediately.

PEP is not 100 percent effective. While you are taking PEP, you will also need to use other forms of protection to help reduce your risk of HIV.1 This includes using condoms or other barrier methods during sexual activity and following safe needle practices.

What PEP can and cannot do

PEP helps reduce the likelihood of you developing HIV after exposure to the virus. It does not protect you 100 percent, but it greatly reduces the chances of developing the virus.

Considering PrEP for HIV prevention

It is not a treatment that can be used if you are frequently exposed to HIV; for instance, it cannot be used instead of practicing safer sex. You can’t take it often because if it’s taken too much, higher and higher doses of the drugs are needed to block infection.1 If you are regularly exposed to HIV (for instance, if you have a partner with HIV), talk with your doctor about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which is a medication taken daily to reduce your chances of developing HIV prior to exposure to the virus.1

Even though PEP consists of drugs used to treat HIV, if you are currently HIV-positive, taking PEP is not effective and will not treat HIV. Take your regular medications as directed and talk with your doctor about possible risk exposures.

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