First, what is PEP?
Ideally, any adult who is HIV-negative would use PEP after having a risky sexual or drug encounter, or an assault or rape, in which he or she may have been exposed to HIV. Health care professionals also use PEP if they’ve come into contact with the virus. The treatment regimen must begin within 72 hours of exposure (that’s three days), before the virus has time to grow within a person’s system. Essentially, the person exposed to HIV would have to take two or three antiretroviral medications for 28 continuous days. The drugs prescribed would vary based on how the person was exposed to HIV. After going through the PEP regimen, the user would be asked to return for more HIV testing about a month and a half later, then three months and six months later. Like PrEP, it’s not 100 percent effective in preventing HIV, but it can greatly reduce the possibility of infection if taken quickly and consistently after a person has been exposed to the virus.
How can someone get PEP when they need it?
Once you know you need PEP, immediately contact your most convenient hospital or health clinic, or your doctor. The first visit will require a medical evaluation, a rapid HIV test, blood testing, risk-reduction counseling, and testing for other sexually transmitted infections. From there, you would be prescribed a treatment regimen and required to follow up with a doctor or other health care provider a few more times. Because of a recent incident in New York in which an emergency room patient wasn’t initially given PEP, there are fears that it’s not available, but at this point most hospitals and clinics do have access to the drugs.
What are the side effects of PEP?
PEP’s most common side effect—nausea—is not life-threatening, but it has been known to be severe, which makes it difficult for some people to finish the program.
If I’m on PEP, does that mean I can ditch the condoms for 28 days?
No. And if you’re taking PEP because of a risky sexual encounter that was consensual, it might be time to think about changing your behavior patterns to lower your risks or start taking PrEP.