It is important to get and take PEP as soon as possible after possible exposure to HIV – ideally within 4 hours; if not, within 24 hours, and certainly within 72 hours (but many believe that this is too late).
If you think you or someone you know needs PEP, go to your local sexual health clinic (GUM clinic) as soon as possible. If the clinic is closed, go to the accident and emergency department of your local hospital, which should contact the on-call HIV doctor. Some HIV clinics can give PEP too.
PEP is considered to be a life-saving emergency treatment. You should get PEP free of charge whatever your immigration status is.
If you have had unprotected vaginal or anal sex (either because you didn’t use a condom or because the condom broke) or shared drug injecting equipment with somebody you know is HIV-positive, or is from a group at high risk of HIV, then you may be able to get a short course of HIV treatment to try to prevent you becoming infected with HIV. It is also sometimes available to people who have had unprotected oral sex.
The treatment is called post exposure prophylaxis, or PEP for short:
- PEP can stop you from becoming infected with HIV by preventing HIV from entering cells in the body.
- PEP isn’t 100% effective. However, there have been very few reports of HIV infection after the use of PEP.
- If you have been exposed to a strain of HIV that is resistant to some anti-HIV drugs then it’s possible that PEP won’t work.
- PEP won’t stop you becoming infected with HIV while you’re taking it so you need to continue using condoms. It won’t stop you from becoming infected in the future either.
- PEP has to be taken for a month, and to increase the chance of PEP working, it is important to take all the doses, at the right time and in the right way.
PEP is not a ‘cure’ for HIV. PEP normally consists of three different anti-HIV drugs. These are the same anti-HIV drugs that are given to someone who is HIV-positive. It can cause side-effects which tend to be worst when you first start taking the treatment. If you are taking PEP you could experience some unpleasant side-effects such as feeling or being sick, diarrhoea, tiredness, and generally feeling unwell.
When you go to get PEP, you will be asked about the sort of unsafe sex (or other activity) you have had, and who you had sex with, to assess how high your risk of becoming HIV infected is.
You will also need to have an HIV test to check you don’t already have HIV. You need to agree to be tested again when you have finished the course of PEP to see whether it has worked. PEP won’t be given if you refuse to test, because if you are already HIV-positive, but don’t know it, there is a chance of developing drug resistance when you take PEP if you don’t take your doses properly. This could limit your treatment options in the future.
Don’t rely on access to PEP if you are having unprotected sex or sharing drug injecting equipment. When used properly, a condom is a far more effective way to prevent getting HIV. Condoms are easier to access than PEP, they prevent other sexually transmitted infections and they don’t have side effects. If you inject drugs, not sharing needles or other injecting equipment will help prevent the transmission of HIV and other infections.