PEP: Protecting you against HIV when you need it

By Chris Williams, updated 2 weeks ago in Health / Sexual health

Blue pills on a pink background

Concerned about HIV exposure? PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) can stop HIV.

Even if condoms aren’t available or there were mishaps, you can still reduce the risk of HIV — even after the event! PEP is a way to protect yourself or someone you care about from becoming HIV positive.

Condom slipped or broke? Missed a dose of PrEP? However you might have been exposed to HIV, PEP can help.

PEP Summary

  • PEP is a 28-day course of medicine that can help avoid HIV after an exposure
  • Act fast – start PEP within 72 hours of exposure, and ideally as soon as possible
  • Provide medical staff with information about your situation
  • Use PEP every day and complete the full course

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

What’s PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis)?

PEP is a 28-day course of anti-HIV medication that can help prevent HIV after potential exposure. It stops the virus from taking hold in the body during the initial days after exposure.

Think of PEP as the HIV equivalent of the ‘morning after’ pill for pregnancy prevention. While it requires a bit more commitment, it serves a similar purpose in preventing HIV after a potential exposure.

“PEP is a 28-day course of medicine that can help avoid HIV after an exposure.”

PEP pills have improved over the years, effectively preventing HIV transmission. Since 1990, healthcare workers have been able to access PEP after work accidents. Now, if you might have been exposed to HIV through sex or sharing injecting equipment, you can also get PEP.

Learn more about PEP and HIV protection in our Knowledge Hub.

Does PEP prevent HIV?

PEP is a last-resort option for HIV prevention after exposure, but time is crucial.

For PEP to work, it’s best startes within 72 hours of exposure, and ideally as soon as possible, preferably as soon as possible. Starting PEP sooner increases its chances of working.

To minimise the risk of HIV, it’s essential to take PEP every day and complete the full 28-day course of daily pills.

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 studies suggest that PEP is very effective at preventing HIV.

Do I need PEP if I used a condom?

If you used a condom correctly and it did not break or slip off during sex, you are not at risk of getting HIV.

In this case, there is no need to consider PEP. However, if you have any concerns or doubts about the effectiveness of the condom or if there was a potential exposure to HIV, it’s always best to consult a healthcare professional. Some states and territories have PEP Phone Lines to call for advice — see the section on how to get PEP in Australia below.

Remember, using condoms consistently and correctly is one of several effective ways to protect against HIV. Condoms also help reduce the risk of most other STIs.

Does PEP have side effects?

The modern medicines used for PEP are safe and well-tolerated by most people. There’s a small chance of experiencing minor side effects. But these aren’t guaranteed and they’re typically short-lived if you do get any.

Some people might experience mild nausea, diarrhoea or a headache when they start a course of PEP, which usually settle in a week. Taking PEP after a decent meal can help.

“… 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?

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:

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 an Emergency Department could be the best option outside of usual operating hours.

Some medical staff might not know what PEP is, so be prepared to explain your situation. Some states and territories have PEP Phone Lines you can call to speak with hospital on your behalf. Check out the local guides for states and territories above for details.

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 situation, 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 these questions might feel quite personal, medical staff need to assess your 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.

Providing as much information about your situation as possible will help medical staff decide what’s best for you and whether you need PEP… or not. If whoever you had sex with is HIV positive and maintaining an undetectable viral load, PEP isn’t recommended. 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 used.

What next?

Sometimes you’ll be given a complete 28-day course of PEP medicine on the spot. Otherwise, if you get a starter kit, book a follow-up appointment to get the rest of your PEP pills 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 remember to take it.

Completing the full 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 full 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 condoms aren’t working for you, talk to your doctor or an HIV/LGBTI health organisation about starting PrEP.

What’s PrEP?

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 you against HIV no matter what happens.

If PEP is similar to the ‘morning after’ pill, you could think of PrEP like the birth control pill — something you take before sex.

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. Learn more about PrEP and HIV protection in our Knowledge Hub.

There are different ways you can use PrEP to suit your needs. 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.