PrEP, also known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a pharmaceutical drug for individuals at risk of HIV. The medicine is a preventative measure taken by individuals to prevent HIV infection from injection drug use or sexual exposures. This drug works by preventing HIV from entering the body and taking hold of your immune cells. It also prevents spread throughout your body. There are currently two medications approved by the FDA, making it a viable option for anyone wanting to limit the risk.

Why Should Someone Take PrEP Medications?

PrEP is highly efficient at preventing HIV from entering the body when taken as directed. Studies have shown that PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV by 99% (from sexual encounters) after seven days of use. Individuals who inject drugs are protected by at least 74% when taken as prescribed. When taken incorrectly or inconsistently, PrEP becomes much less effective.  

Who is a Candidate for PrEP?

Anyone that has engaged in vaginal or anal intercourse in the past six months is a candidate for this medication. Medical professionals will consider all potential risk factors before prescribing PrEP, including a sexual partner with HIV (particularly if the individual has a detectable or unknown viral load). Other risk factors include:

  • Unprotected sex with people of unknown status.
  • Inconsistent use of condoms.
  • Another diagnosed STD in the last six months.

Anyone who has received PEP treatment and continues to engage in risky behavior is also a good candidate for this medication. If you have used multiple courses of PEP throughout your life, you may be a candidate for preventative medicines.

Finally, individuals who inject drugs, share needles, or other paraphernalia associated with drug use may also be qualified for a prescription. Anyone with an HIV-positive injection partner would be a good candidate for PrEP.

Of course, there are some things to consider before starting the treatment. Always be certain to ask your doctor about possible PrEP side effects before taking the medication. Furthermore, anti-HIV drugs can be costly to use. Some private insurance companies will cover the costs of this medication, while others may require users to pay the entire fee. Ask your medical provider or pharmacist about any fees associated with use or coverage options you may have at your appointment. 

How does HIV Infect the Body?

Unfortunately, the human body has no natural method to fight and remove HIV once infected. HIV targets the immune system directly, attacking leukocytes in the process. Leukocytes are white blood cells in the body, tasked with protecting against infection and disease. HIV targets a specific type of white blood cell called CD4 cells. These cells are commonly referred to as T-cells (helper cells). When HIV is in the CD4 cells, it tricks the cell into becoming a safe haven for the virus, allowing it to reproduce and spread throughout the body. HIV depends on CD4 cells to survive; without them, HIV wouldn’t stand a chance to infect a host. 

How Does PrEP Prevent Infection?

PrEP works by setting a barrier around CD4 cells within the body. The walls prevent HIV from crossing into healthy cells and replicating. Should HIV enter the body, the barrier prevents access to the cell and reduces the probability of spreading. Protection levels need time to accumulate within the body, responding best seven to 21 days after starting the medication.

This medication is currently only available by prescription. Anyone wanting to start PrEP will need to have an HIV test to confirm negative status before starting. Users will need frequent check-ins with their practitioner while taking the prescription to ensure their overall health and safety (including regular screening and STI testing). 

Anyone taking PrEP needs to take the dose regularly to ensure maximum protection. This medication is prescribed as a once-daily medication (preventative measure) or as an on-demand schedule. Two drugs (anti-HIV drugs) are combined in one tablet.   

For a daily regimen, you’ll take one pill daily at the same time. Should you forget to take a dose, your level of protection will decrease. People taking PrEP daily saw a 99% efficiency at preventing HIV infection. Individuals who missed frequent doses (for example, taking the medication twice a week) saw protection levels drop to 74% overall. For on-demand use, you’ll take medicine the day of potential exposure and two days after contact. On-demand schedules are not as efficient at protecting against the virus.