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PrEP is a medicine that’s used to prevent HIV in people that are at risk of contracting the infection. This can include those who don’t always use barrier methods such as condoms, or those that have several sexual partners of unknown HIV status.

It contains a mixture of antiretroviral drugs that have previously been sued to treat the condition, but the drug has been approved in recent years to prevent the virus, proving to be over 90% effective in studies.

What is PrEP?

PrEP is a fairly recent advance in medicine that’s able to prevent HIV by over 90%. It’s a mixture of antiretroviral drugs, some of which are used to treat HIV after a person has been infected, but in the case of PrEP, they’re used to stop the virus from affecting the body and keeping the person HIV-negative.

The acronym stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis which means that it should be taken before you’re exposed to HIV. If you’ve already been diagnosed with the virus, you’ll need different but similar medication to control it rather than PrEP.

What’s HIV?

HIV stands for human-immunodeficiency virus. As the name suggests, it attacks the immune system and causes a lot of problems which can be potentially life-threatening if left untreated. If HIV is undetected for a long time, or a person with the virus doesn’t take medicine for it, it can develop into AIDS, which many have died from.

HIV is transmitted from person to person through certain bodily fluids, which include blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. In other words, the virus can be transmitted through unprotected sexual contact, through sharing needles, or passed from a mum to her baby whilst breast-feeding. If you do contract HIV, the virus stays with you for life, and there’s no way of curing it. However, a vast majority of those diagnosed with HIV take antiretroviral drugs to reduce their viral load, and many people living with HIV are now undetectable and unable to pass the virus on to others.

Until recently, the only way of preventing HIV was by using barrier methods such as condoms, or abstaining from sex. However, that all changed when PrEP was licenced for use as a HIV preventative drug. There are currently around 101,600 people living with HIV in the UK. Whilst this number can’t be reduced due to the virus staying in the body for life, it can be prevented from increasing with the use of PrEP.

How do I know if PrEP works for me?

If you’re taking PrEP, or are planning to start treatment with it, it’s likely that you’ll be regularly screened for STIs, including HIV. However, there are some symptoms you can look out for that might indicate that you’ve contracted HIV. Whilst PrEP is over 90% effective, it unfortunately can’t prevent the infection 100% of the time, especially if no other protection is used. The symptoms to look out for include:

  • Headache
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Aching muscles
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Red but non-itchy rash usually on the torso
  • Fever

In other words, an infection with HIV can feel like a bout of the flu, and symptoms usually disappear within a couple of weeks. However, over time, your immune system will weaken and you’ll be less able to fight off infections.

It’s important to stay aware of the symptoms of HIV in case you’ve been exposed to the virus, or if you haven’t been taking PrEP as recommended for your sexual habits.

How can I take PrEP?

There are a few ways to take it, depending on your sex life. The most common way is to take PrEP daily, which means taking one pill a day to be protected from HIV no matter how often you have sex, or what type of sex you have. It takes around 4-7 days of taking the medication for you to be fully protected. The other methods include:

  • On demand: This method means that you take PrEP when you know you’re going to be having sex. In this case, you take 2 pills between 2-24 hours before you plan to have sex, then take another 24 hours later, and another 24 hours after that. This should protect you for that one sexual encounter.
  • TTSS: This method means that you take PrEP 4 times a week, on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. This is suitable for anal sex only, and only if you don’t have sex more than a couple of times a month.
  • The “holiday” method: Some people might only need to take PrEP for a short time, for example, if they’re going away or know that the chances of sex will be increased for any amount of time. To use PrEP this way, you should take 1 pill a day for 7 days leading up to the time period, one pill a day during this time, and then 1 pill a day for 7 days after the time has ended.

You should be able to determine which method is best for you based on your sex lifestyle and how often you have intercourse and the type of sex that you have.

I don’t know if I have HIV

Before you take PrEP, you should really get tested for HIV. You can do this by either going to a sexual health centre, your own GP, or some GUM clinics that will be able to test your blood for signs of infection. Alternatively, you can also order home-testing kits online. We’d recommend a 4th generation kit for more accurate results.

If your results show that you’re HIV-negative, you’ll be eligible to start taking PrEP, which is currently unavailable on the NHS in England unless you’re part of an impact trial. However, the good news is that you can order PrEP through iMeds UK after filling in a short patient questionnaire to request a prescription. If it’s approved, your order will be sent to you in the post, and you can start taking it after reading the patient information leaflet.