I want to do everything I can to protect myself from HIV. I keep hearing about PEP and PrEP – what is the difference and how do I know if I should ask for it?

Great question – all these acronyms can get super confusing! A quick refresher – HIV, or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a virus that attacks the immune system. You can contract HIV through blood or certain bodily fluids, and if HIV is left untreated it can lead to AIDS. There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments that people living with HIV can take to manage the condition. If you’re concerned about your risk for HIV, talk to your medical provider. Keep in mind that condoms are easily available and provide excellent protection against the virus! However, if you are in need of an extra layer of protection, PEP and PrEP are great tools to know about.

PEP and PrEP are two strategies for HIV protection. The medications are taken at different points of exposure to the virus.

PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a preventative measure. If you’re HIV-negative and have not yet been exposed to the virus, you can take a daily pill to prevent infection from exposure. PrEP is a great option for you if you feel that you’re at increased risk of getting HIV. Only you and your medical provider can determine your individual risk level, but PrEP can be especially beneficial for people who use injectable drugs, who do not use condoms with partners of unknown HIV status, or whose partner(s) are living with HIV. PrEP is about 90 percent effective with perfect use, and must be taken daily to achieve maximum effectiveness. You’ll need to see a medical provider every three months while on the medication to monitor your health and get tested for HIV. Have a conversation with your medical provider about strategies to protect yourself against HIV, and how PrEP can fit into your plan!

PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, is an emergency intervention and your first line of defense if you believe you’ve been exposed to HIV.

The sooner you take PEP, the better – the drug can be taken up to 72 hours after exposure, but is most effective the earlier it is taken. The full course of PEP consists of a few different HIV treatment drugs, and lasts 28 days. One study estimates that it reduces infection rates by about 80 percent. If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, don’t wait – ask your medical provider about PEP ASAP. The drug is available in the emergency room and many walk-in clinics, including for free at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center.

A lot of people are really scared of HIV, and, as a result, tend to avoid talking about it or getting tested.

It’s normal to be nervous, but knowledge is power – knowing your HIV status allows you to best care for yourself as well as your partner(s)! You can go see your medical provider and get tested using a quick cheek swab or a blood test. If your results DO come back positive, it’s important to remember that many people are currently living a happy, healthy life with HIV. Chat with your medical provider and treatment team about the best route forward for you!

If you live in the New York City area, use this handy guide to find PrEP, PEP and HIV testing near you. If you’re 10-22 years old, MSAHC will confidentially provide all these services – plus time with a medical provider – for free. Just make an appointment.