PEP, PrEP and ARVs

If you’ve done any research on HIV prevention and treatments, you’re probably familiar with the terms PEP, PrEP and ARV’s. Most of us may find ourselves confused about the similarities and differences between the three. Here are all three terms unpacked. 

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)

PEP is a course of treatment given to someone who’s been exposed to HIV. PEP reduces the risk of becoming infected. PEP doesn’t treat or prevent any other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like gonorrhoea, chlamydia, HPV (genital warts), herpes or syphilis.

It’s recommended that you take PEP within 72 hours after exposure to possible infection, for it to be most effective. The pills must be taken at the same time every day, for 28 days.

You can get PEP if you’re HIV negative and you were potentially exposed to HIV, in cases such as:

  • You were raped.
  • A condom slipped off or broke during sex. 
  • You had sex without a condom, and you don’t know your partner’s HIV status.
  • You had sex with someone who’s HIV positive, who isn’t on ARV treatment or is on ARV treatment but isn’t undetectable.
  • You were exposed to contaminated blood- either through a needle prick, injury or blood transfusion.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)

PrEP is an HIV prevention course of treatment which people who are HIV negative, but at high risk of contracting HIV, take daily to prevent them from contracting the virus. For example, PrEP would be a good idea if you’re in a mixed HIV status relationship. PrEP doesn’t treat HIV.

If you take PrEP daily, you lower your risk of being infected with HIV. You can stop taking PrEP altogether if you no longer think that you need it, but you should speak to your healthcare provider first.

PrEP is recommended for people who are HIV negative, and fit these criteria:

  • Have multiple sex partners.
  • Have an HIV positive sex partner who isn’t on ARVs, or isn’t undetectable.
  • Are a sex worker.
  • Use recreational drugs for high sex.

Antiretrovirals (ARVs)

The treatment used to treat HIV is called antiretrovirals (ARVs). There are different types of ARVs, but they do similar things in your body. HIV treatment is made up of three or more antiretroviral drugs, normally combined into one pill. Like PEP and PrEP, ARVs don’t treat or prevent other STIs.

ARVs need to be taken daily and for the rest of your life if you’re living with HIV. ARVs only stay in your body for 24hrs, which is why you need to take them every day. This ensures that there’s always the correct level of medication in your bloodstream working to keep the HIV under control. Remember, ARVs don’t kill or cure the virus. What they do is prevent it from reproducing and over time, after consistent use, you may find yourself with an undetectable viral load.

PEP, PrEP and ARVs are all available at your local clinics or healthcare providers. Remember that you need to get tested for HIV before starting any course of treatment, and only a doctor or qualified nurse can start you on PEP, PrEP or ARVs. It’s never a good idea to take someone else’s medication, Choma.

Some people taking PEP, PrEP or ARVs may have side effects, like nausea. These side effects usually aren’t serious, and often get better over time. If you’re taking any treatment, it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider if you have any side effects that bother you, don’t go away or get worse over time. PEP may also interact with other medication that a person is taking- this is called drug interaction. So, it’s important to tell your healthcare provider about any other medication you take.

Regular HIV testing and STI screening (every 3 months) will ensure that if you should become infected, it’ll be detected early. Early detection is important for a long, healthy life. Do you have any other questions about these medications? Comment down below!

If you or a friend need advice or help, you can contact me here on Ask Choma, send a Facebook message or a Twitter DM, or a WhatsApp Message (071 172 3657).