After sexual assault, you may be concerned about HIV exposure. If so, PEP (post exposure prophylaxis) may help you prevent an infection. Speak to a healthcare professional about whether PEP is right for you. Our free tool can help you find a hospital near you.
What exactly is PEP?
PEP is one of the most effective methods of preventing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). PEP is a combination of three antiretroviral drugs: tenofovir and emtricitabine (truvada) and either raltegravir or dolutegravir. For it to be effective, it should be taken for 28 days and started as soon as possible after HIV exposure.
What is HIV?
HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks your immune system, affecting your ability to fight infection. If left untreated, it can weaken your immune system and lead to AIDS.
How do you get exposed to HIV?
Exposure to HIV happens when you come in contact with an infected individual’s bodily fluids, such as blood or semen. Sexual assault is one way to be exposed to HIV. If you are worried about HIV exposure, talk to a health care professional about taking PEP as soon as possible. If you need help finding a hospital near you, use our free tool.
When should you take PEP?
Much like emergency contraception, the sooner you take PEP, the better. Ideally, you should take PEP immediately after potential exposure to HIV. For it to be effective, it should be taken for 28 days and started as soon as possible – usually within 72 hours. PEP is used for emergency purposes only. It shouldn’t be used as a substitute for other methods of HIV prevention such as condoms or other barrier methods during sex, the use of sterile needles, or PrEP. If you’re often exposed to HIV, you talk to your doctor about using PrEP. To learn more about PrEP, read our blog post here.
How does PEP work?
PEP works by helping the immune system prevent replication of HIV in your body, leading to the death of infected cells within a short time, without reproducing. When taking PEP, the antiretroviral drugs enter the bloodstream and the genital and rectal tissues. If HIV is present in the body, these drugs prevent HIV from making copies of itself within the immune system and thus prevent infection. If used correctly, it can be effective in preventing HIV, but it is not 100%.
What should I expect before and after taking PEP?
Before prescribing PEP, your healthcare provider will assess the risk of HIV transmission and conduct a rapid HIV test to determine if it is right for you. They may ask questions about how you were exposed to HIV, with who, and when it happened. PEP is only recommended to people that are HIV-negative. You may also be asked to do other tests such as screening for hepatitis B and hepatitis C, other STIs such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, and a pregnancy test. After completing the full course of PEP drugs, you may also have to visit your healthcare provider for HIV testing to determine if it was effective.
Does PEP have any side effects?
Taking PEP rarely comes with safety concerns or side effects, and they are usually mild, treatable, and not life-threatening. Some of the possible side effects include nausea, headaches, fatigue, and an upset stomach. If any of these or other symptoms don’t go away or become worse, talk to your healthcare provider immediately. If you’re on any medications, tell your healthcare provider because PEP may interact with these medications, and this could be dangerous.
Will PEP prevent future exposure to HIV?
No, it is important to avoid further exposure to HIV, even while taking PEP. PEP is not a substitute for other HIV prevention methods. Continue to use condoms during sex and avoid sharing needles or injection drug equipment. It’s also important to note that PEP doesn’t prevent you from other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). If you’re concerned about HIV exposure, consider using PrEP.
PEP is an important tool for preventing HIV, especially for survivors of sexual assault. Ask your healthcare provider how to access PEP. Our free exam location map at Leda.co can help you find care quickly. We are here to support you.