PrEP: It's Not Just About Taking a Pill
Staying as healthy as possible isn’t just about eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly; it also means limiting or preventing exposure to harmful diseases. This includes the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which continues to be a concern among people and healthcare providers around the world.
Fortunately, you have options when it comes to preventing HIV. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) involves taking a combination of certain medications every day that help lower the chance you’ll be infected with HIV. If you’re at higher risk for HIV and are interested in PrEP, your doctor can help you determine whether this preventative treatment is right for you. But PrEP isn’t a magic pill; practicing safe sex and living a healthy lifestyle are also important when it comes to preventing HIV.
PrEP and HIV Prevention
Currently, one PrEP medication is available, called Truvada. Truvada combines two different HIV medications: emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate. Taken daily as one PrEP pill, these medications work by blocking the actions of a certain enzyme that allows the HIV virus to multiply and spread within the body. Truvada helps to reduce HIV virus levels within the body, making infection less likely.
If your doctor prescribes PrEP, it’s important to take one pill every single day. This helps ensure the drug works as effectively as possible to prevent HIV infection. Several studies suggest that if you take PrEP consistently every day, your risk of contracting HIV from sex drops by more than 90% and your risk of contracting HIV from injectable drug use is reduced by over 70%.
Like any medication, PrEP may cause side effects such as nausea. For most people, side effects are not serious and they eventually go away.
HIV Safety Beyond the PrEP Pill
PrEP can dramatically lower your risk for infection from HIV, but it’s not only about taking a pill; if you make dangerous lifestyle decisions, you will still be at risk of contracting HIV. But when you use PrEP in combination with healthy lifestyle choices, you reduce your risk of HIV infection even further.
Eating a well-balanced diet heavy on fruits and vegetables and light on red meat and processed foods will keep your body strong and healthy, as will exercising five days a week for 30 minutes each day. Keep away from recreational drugs that can raise your infection risk through needle use, and stay on top of your mental health.
It’s also helpful to develop a good relationship with your doctor; after your doctor prescribes PrEP, you’ll need to follow up at least every three months for HIV testing and to renew your prescription.
It’s also good to keep in mind that PrEP doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). That’s why you should continue using condoms during every sexual encounter. Additionally, ask your doctor to screen for any STIs during your follow up visits. Catching STIs early allows treatment to begin quickly and may help prevent further complications.
Some people benefit from meeting with a sexual health counselor, who may help you identify risky sexual behaviors and develop a plan for staying as healthy as possible. Part of the plan may involve limiting your number of sexual partners or getting tested for HIV and knowing your partner’s HIV status.
If you use injectable drugs, be sure to use only sterile injection equipment, including needles and syringes. Don’t share your equipment with others, since this increases your risk for HIV exposure.
PrEP helps many people reduce their risk of HIV infection. Using PrEP with other lifestyle changes, such as condom use and regular STI testing, helps you stay as healthy as possible. If your doctor prescribes PrEP, be sure to take your medication every single day to make sure it’s as effective as possible. Let your doctor know about any side effects you may experience, and attend each follow up appointment to get tested regularly for HIV. Together with your doctor, PrEP, and other safety measures beyond the pill, you can substantially limit your risk of HIV infection.