PEP: Protecting you against HIV when you need it

By Chris Williams, updated 5 months ago in Health / Sexual health

Blue pills on a pink background

Had a possible HIV exposure? Knowing about PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) and how to get it fast could prevent you or a mate from getting HIV.

Condoms… they’re really useful. But they’re not always around when you want one.

Sometimes they slip or break, and sometimes they just don’t get used! Whether it’s condom troubles or missing doses of PrEP, however you might have been exposed to HIV, there is a way you can significantly reduce your chance of getting it — even after the event!

It’s called PEP, or Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, and knowing how to access it when needed could help you or someone you care about stay HIV negative. Learn more about PEP and HIV protection in our Knowledge Hub.

PEP Summary

  • PEP is a one-month course of anti-HIV medicine that can help prevent HIV
  • Act fast – start PEP within 72 hours of exposure, ideally as soon as possible
  • Provide medical staff with as much information as you can about your situation
  • Use PEP every day and complete the course
  • Ask about PrEP as a highly effective ongoing HIV prevention strategy

Exposed to HIV? Get PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) | Emen8

What’s PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis)?

PEP is a one-month course of anti-HIV medicine that can help prevent HIV after a possible exposure to the virus. It works by preventing the virus from establishing an infection in the first few days after entering the body.

Ever heard of the morning after pill that helps prevent pregnancy? Although PEP is a little more involved, some people compare it to that, but for HIV prevention instead.

“PEP is a one-month course of anti-HIV medicine that can help prevent HIV after a possible exposure to the virus.”

The types of medicines used in PEP pills have improved over the years, and they do a great job of making sure people don’t get HIV. Since as far back as 1990, healthcare workers have been able to get PEP after a work accident that could have left them exposed. Nowadays, you can get PEP if you might have been exposed to HIV through sex or sharing injecting equipment.

Does PEP prevent HIV?

Although there has never been a randomised trial where 50 per cent of people got PEP and 50 per cent of people got a placebo, other types of studies suggest that PEP can be very effective in preventing HIV infection.

PEP is an emergency last resort against HIV if you’ve been exposed. However, you’ve got to act fast.

To have a chance of being effective, PEP is best started within 72 hours of exposure, and ideally as soon as possible. The sooner you start PEP, the more likely it is to succeed.

PEP is a great way to minimise the chance of getting HIV as long as you take it every day and complete the course.

Does PEP have side effects?

The modern medicines used for PEP are safe and well-tolerated by most people. Even so, there’s a minimal chance of experiencing side effects. But know they’re not always guaranteed, and they’re typically short-lived if you do get any.

Some people might experience mild nausea when they start a course of PEP, which usually settles within a week. Taking PEP after a decent meal can help with this.

“… PEP is best started within 72 hours of exposure, and ideally as soon as possible.”

If you’re concerned about how you might feel, ask for anti-nausea medication to help you get on with your day as usual.

How do I get PEP in Australia?

You can get PEP in Emergency Departments of many public hospitals, sexual health centres and some doctors who specialise in HIV medicine or LGBTI healthcare.

Call in advance to make it clear you want PEP. Visiting the Emergency Department could be the best option outside regular operating hours.

Some medical staff might not know what PEP is, so be prepared to explain your situation. Some states and territories have PEP information phone lines you can call to speak with hospital staff on your behalf.

We’ve produced local guides on how you can get PEP in any state or territory, including PEP phone lines to call for help and advice:

The Get PEP website also has information on how to get PEP near you. Showing the website to medical staff can help them provide you with the best possible treatment.

When talking about your possible HIV exposure, you might be asked about the kind of sex you’ve had, whether you used condoms, and if you know the HIV status of anyone else involved. Although it might seem quite personal, medical staff need to assess the situation accurately. These questions are about helping you and not judging you, so be honest — remember it’s all about making sure you stay HIV negative and protect your long term health and wellbeing.

If whoever you had sex with is HIV positive and maintaining an undetectable viral load, it’s unlikely you’ll need PEP. People living with HIV who maintain an undetectable viral load for at least six months cannot transmit HIV through sex, even when condoms aren’t being used. Providing this and as much other information about your situation as possible will help medical staff decide what’s best for you.

What next?

Sometimes you’ll be given a complete course of PEP on the spot. Otherwise, if you get a starter kit, book a follow-up appointment to get the rest of your PEP later. Then it’s as simple as taking PEP every day for 28 days. Setting a daily reminder on your phone is a handy way to make sure you remember to take it.

Completing the course of PEP improves its goal of keeping you HIV negative.

Ask your healthcare professional about getting follow-up HIV tests four to six weeks after you first started PEP and again three months after starting PEP. This is because it can take up to three months for HIV to show up on a test.

“Completing the course of PEP improves its goal of keeping you HIV negative.”

While you’re finishing off your course of PEP, it’s best to use condoms for any sex you might have. If you find condoms aren’t working for you, talk to your doctor or an HIV/LGBTI health organisation about PrEP.

What’s PrEP?

If PEP is somewhat similar to the morning-after pill, you could think of PrEP like the birth control pill — something you take before sex. Learn more about PrEP and HIV protection in our Knowledge Hub.

PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, is a highly effective HIV prevention strategy that combines regular sexual health testing with medicine to protect you against HIV. PrEP allows you to take control of your health. It can protect against HIV around the clock regardless of the choices you make.

Much like PEP, PrEP also involves using anti-HIV medicine to protect you against HIV. PrEP is different because you take it before the possibility of exposure to HIV.

There are different ways to use PrEP depending on your circumstances and preferences. See more in Same PrEP, new choices: on-demand, periodic or daily.

If you’re already using PEP, you can transition to PrEP smoothly as your body is already well adjusted to taking the medication. With an ongoing PrEP program, you won’t have to go through the process of getting PEP again, which should hopefully be as much of a relief as knowing you’re protected from HIV for as long as you choose.

LGBTI health organisations and community groups such as PrEP’D For Change and PAN (PrEPaccessNOW) have all the information you need about choosing if PrEP is right for you, and how to access it. For all your PrEP questions, check out Got a PrEP question? Here’s where to find support.