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Let's say you had sex with someone who is HIV infected and the condom broke, or you found out only after unprotected sex that your partner had HIV. Can you reduce your risk of getting HIV from sex--or from a needlestick--by taking medications afterward?
Yes. This is called postexposure prophylaxis, or PEP.
The medications that are given are the same types that are used to treat HIV (antiretrovirals, or ARVs), and they usually are given as a combination of 3 medicines for 1 month. To work best, these ARVs should be taken as soon as possible after the exposure, and ideally not later than 72 hours after the exposure. To be evaluated for postexposure prophylaxis, the exposed individual should contact his/her clinician or an emergency room promptly after the exposure.
Exposed persons do not have to know the HIV status of the person with whom they had contact in order to be offered PEP--providers will evaluate the risk level of the exposure and, if possible, offer testing to the source individual. The exposed person should be tested for preexisting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases such as hepatitis B, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, but the first dose of PEP should not be delayed in order to complete that testing. The sooner after the exposure PEP medicines are started, the more likely they are to be effective. People on PEP should be monitored for side effects or toxicity from the PEP medicines and tested again for HIV after the treatment is completed.
If you have a partner who is HIV-positive, or if you have had to take PEP more than once, you might want to consider taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is an ARV pill that people who are at risk of getting HIV can take every day to prevent HIV infection. See our other FAQs on PrEP, or speak with your clinician.
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