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What is PrEP and How Does it Prevent HIV?

PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is medication for anyone at risk for contracting HIV. It helps prevent a person from getting HIV from sex or through injection drug use

PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is medication for anyone at risk for contracting HIV. It helps prevent a person from getting HIV from sex or through injection drug use. When taken as prescribed by your doctor, PrEP is a highly effective medication for preventing HIV transmission.

What Medications are Used as PrEP?

Two medications have been approved for use as PrEP. These include Truvada® and Descovy®:

  • Truvada is for all people who are more at risk through sex or injection drug use
  • Descovy is for ideal people at risk through sex, except for anyone assigned female at birth who would be at risk of getting HIV from vaginal sex.

Why Take PrEP?

PrEP is extremely effective when taken as directed by a medical professional.

The once-daily pill minimizes the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%. For individuals who inject drugs, it lowers the risk by more than 70%.

Your risk of contracting HIV from sex can be even more reduced if you combine PrEP with condoms and other preventative methods.

Is PrEP Safe to Use?

PrEP is a very safe medication to use. No serious problems have been reported in people who are taking this medication.

However, some people experience side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, headache, fatigue, but these usually disappear over time. 

If you notice troublesome side effects that won’t go away, be sure to speak with your doctor or nurse practitioner. They can help you determine better ways to manage side effects. 

Is PrEP Right for You?

PrEP is beneficial to HIV-negative patients or if you have engaged in anal or vaginal sex in the past six months. It may also be a good possibility for you if:

  • You have a sexual partner with HIV (it is especially effective if the partner has an unknown or detectable viral load),
  • have not been using a condom consistently, or
  • you have been diagnosed with an STI within the past six months.

PrEP is also beneficial for people who inject drugs, have an injection partner with HIV, or share needles or other injection devices.

This medication may also be an ideal possibility for you if you have been prescribed PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), a continuation of risky behavior, or have used several courses of PEP.

If you are a cisgender woman or AFAB and have a partner with HIV, and are looking to get pregnant, be sure to speak to your doctor about PrEP. It can be an excellent option for protecting you and your baby from contracting HIV while attempting to get pregnant, during pregnancy, or when you start breastfeeding.

Read more: Transgender People and HIV- What to know

How Does PrEP Help Prevent HIV?

PrEP interrupts the pathways that HIV uses to create a permanent infection. For HIV to cause an infection, the virus has to enter the body, infect specific immune cells, replicate within these immune cells, and then spread in the body. 

When PrEP is taken as directed and consistently, antiretroviral drugs will get into the bloodstream and genital and rectal tissues. The drugs function by preventing HIV from replicating within the body’s immune cells, which reduces the likelihood of a permanent infection.

For PrEP to prevent HIV replication from happening, drug levels in the body must be high. If pills are not taken as often as they are prescribed, there may not be enough medication in the body to minimize the risk of an HIV infection.

How Do I Get Access to PrEP?

PrEP is available at many local health departments, the doctor’s office, or some Planned Parenthood facilities.

You can discuss with your nurse practitioner or doctor about the sex you engage in, the protection you use, and your medical history. That way, they’ll have a better idea if PrEP is the right choice for you. They will also run tests for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and other STIs and test your kidneys to ensure they are adequately functioning. 

Some nurse practitioners and doctors may not be familiar with PrEP or may be hesitant to prescribe it because they don’t know all the facts. If you don’t have a GP or don’t prescribe PrEP, you can still go to your local Planned Parenthood health center for the most accurate and non-judgmental information. There, they can help get you a prescription. 

In addition, other organizations can help you access PrEP. Greater than AIDS provides a tool where you can find PrEP near you.

What Else Do I Need to Know About Being on PrEP?

Once you are on PrEP, you will have to visit your doctor or nurse practitioner every three months for HIV testing. They will discuss any side effects or symptoms you may be experiencing, test your kidneys and for STIs and pregnancy, if necessary. 

These follow-up appointments are essential in the process to ensure that you are healthy and HIV-free. It’s doubtful you will contract HIV if you’re using PrEP regularly. However, if you get HIV while using PrEP, be sure to stop using PrEP right away since it is not a treatment for HIV. In actuality, if you are taking PrEP when you have HIV, it can make it more challenging to treat the virus. 

In Summary

PrEP can be an effective medication for preventing HIV. However, be sure to follow your doctor’s orders and take PrEP as prescribed. That way, you can have peace of mind while taking this medication. 

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Billie Olsen

AUTHOR: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.