PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis. It’s a month long course of antiretroviral drugs. These are medication for people living with HIV. If taken within 72 hours of first coming into contact with HIV, it greatly reduces your chances of contracting the virus.
If you realise you may have recently been exposed to HIV, whether through unprotected sex or use of an unclean needle, you’ll probably feel pretty scared and confused. But if your contact with HIV was within the past 72 hours, and if you act now, you may be able to prevent the virus taking hold.
Who can take PEP?
PEP may be given to someone who is at risk of having been exposed to HIV within the past 72 hours. This includes people who’ve had unprotected sex with a HIV positive person, or someone who has used needles to inject drugs, that have also been used by a HIV positive person who is not on treatment.
How and where would I get PEP?
You can get PEP for free at A&E in hospitals, or at STI clinics. If you show up to A&E or an STI clinic, having had unprotected sex, having used a needle, or gotten a needlestick injury within the past 72 hours, they’ll do an assessment of your risk for HIV.
The assessment involves answering a number of questions about your recent risk exposure. For example if it was a sexual risk, you might be asked what type of sex you had and what you know about your partner’s sexual history or HIV status. Having assessed your risk of having been recently exposed to HIV, they may put you on a course of PEP.
What happens when I take PEP?
Firstly, it’s important that a course of PEP is started as soon as possible after coming into contact with HIV. The earlier it is taken the more likely it is to be effective. The medication then must be taken every day, at specific times, for the course of a month. The doctor will be able to fill you in on exactly how to take it, and it’s important to follow their instructions carefully.
Are there any side effects?
There are side effects, and some of them can be unpleasant. These include diarrhoea, headaches, feeling sick and vomiting.
Remember PEP is only an emergency treatment, and the side effects can get pretty unpleasant. PEP is in no way a replacement for good safer sex practices. By far the most effective way of preventing HIV is by using a condom every single time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex, and getting tested regularly.
Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you’re over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.