(Last updated 8/30/2016; last reviewed 8/30/2016)
PEP stands for “post-exposure prophylaxis.” The word “prophylaxis” means to prevent or protect from an infection or disease. PEP involves taking antiretroviral (ARV) medicines very soon after a possible exposure to HIV to prevent becoming infected with HIV.
There are 2 types of PEP: oPEP and nPEP. oPEP stands for “occupational post-exposure prophylaxis.” It’s when a health care worker takes PEP because of a possible on-the-job exposure to HIV, such as during a needlestick injury.
The other type of PEP is called nPEP, and it stands for “non-occupational post-exposure prophylaxis.” It’s when someone takes PEP because of a possible HIV exposure that happened outside of the person’s work, such as during sex or injection drug use.
Your health care provider will help to determine whether you should receive PEP.
PEP is intended for emergency situations. It is not meant for regular use by people who may be exposed to HIV frequently. Another HIV prevention method, called pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, is when people at high risk for HIV take an ARV medicine daily to prevent getting HIV. For more information on PrEP, see the AIDSinfo fact sheet on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP).
If you think you were exposed to HIV, immediately contact your health care provider or go to an emergency room, urgent care clinic, or local HIV clinic right away. You will have an HIV test and other tests done. Your health care provider or emergency room doctor will help to decide whether you should receive PEP.
PEP should be started as soon as possible to be effective and always within 72 hours (3 days) after a possible exposure to HIV. Research has shown that PEP has little or no effect in preventing HIV infection if it’s started later than 72 hours after an exposure to HIV.
PEP involves taking 3 or more ARV medicines each day for 28 days. You will need to return to your health care provider at certain times while taking PEP and after you finish taking PEP for HIV testing and other tests.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information on recommended ARV medicines for PEP. CDC also provides PEP recommendations for specific groups of people, including children, pregnant women, and people with kidney problems. The most recent PEP recommendations can be found on CDC’s PEP Guidelines webpage. Your health care provider or emergency room doctor will determine which medicines you should take as part of PEP.
PEP is effective in preventing HIV infection when it’s taken correctly, but it’s not 100% effective. The sooner you start PEP after a possible HIV exposure, the better. While taking PEP, it’s important to keep using condoms with sex partners and to continue safe drug injection practices. Read this fact sheet from CDC for information on how to use condoms correctly.
The ARV medicines in PEP may cause side effects. The side effects can be treated and aren’t life threatening. Talk to your health care provider if you have any side effect that bothers you or that does not go away.
PEP medicines may also interact with other medicines that people are taking (known as a drug interaction). Because of potential drug interactions, it’s important to tell your health care provider about any other medicines that you take.