PEP is a course of HIV medication which you can take if you have been at risk of HIV infection. The course of HIV medication lasts about 28 days and, if taken within 72 hours of putting yourself at risk, may be able to prevent you from becoming infected with HIV. PEP stands for Post Exposure Prophylaxis – in other words it is a form of protection (against HIV) that you can take after you have taken a risk or had a condom break on you.

How to get PEP

You can get PEP at a sexual health clinic or in the Accident and Emergency department of some hospitals. At weekends sexual health clinics will not be open. You must start PEP within 72 hours of putting yourself at risk of HIV, though the sooner you start PEP the more likely it is to be effective.

Many people experience difficulty getting PEP. You are more likely to be prescribed PEP if you are determined, if the clinic believes your risk was genuine, and if you can start the treatment within 72 hours of the risk. Because HIV medication is expensive most clinics will not prescribe PEP unless they feel that there is a very real chance that infection will take place if they don’t. PEP will not be given to someone who is already HIV positive and so if you ask for PEP they will give you an HIV test. If you are HIV negative they will probably try to establish what your risk of infection is and this will depend on the likelihood of your partner being HIV positive and how risky the sex you had was. If you know that your partner was HIV positive, and he is willing to come to the clinic or hospital with you, it may be easier for you to access PEP.

PEP’s effectiveness

Research indicates that PEP can prevent infection with HIV, but it is not 100% effective. PEP is more likely to be effective when the treatment starts shortly after the risk occurred and most clinics will not put someone on a course of PEP any later than 72 hours after HIV exposure (risk). The sooner after the risk you begin PEP, the better the chance that it will work.

Potential side effects

People taking PEP are likely to experience the same kind of side effects as HIV positive people who are beginning to take HIV medication. Common side effects include diarrhoea, nausea, headaches, tiredness and vomiting. As a result of these side-effects many people fail to complete the full course of PEP. In rare cases more serious side effects, such as liver damage, can occur.

PEP and unsafe sex

PEP is not a substitute for consistent condom use. Studies suggest that most men who have taken PEP are likely to have less unsafe sex afterwards and are unlikely to seek PEP again. This is because taking PEP is not an easy option. If you take PEP you will have to cope with the same side effects that men on HIV medication suffer from, as well as the hassle of having to remember to take your meds at set times during the day. PEP will not make you immune to HIV infection. If you have unsafe sex while you are taking PEP or after you have finished a course of PEP, you may become infected with HIV.

More information

The information in this article is in no way intended to replace the professional medical care, advice, diagnosis or treatment of a doctor. The Rainbow Project strongly encourages you to seek appropriate advice and information from your local GUM clinic before considering PEP treatment.

Do you think you have taken a risk but aren’t sure whether you would be a candidate for PEP? Click here to go to Terrence Higgins Trust PEP assessment tool and find out or call our Sexual Health Development Officer, James Copeland, on 028 90319030.

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