Emergency HIV drugs
If you think you've been exposed to the virus, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medication may stop you becoming infected. PEP must be started within 72 hours of coming into contact with the virus for it to be effective. It's only recommended following higher risk exposure, particularly where the sexual partner is known to be positive. PEP involves taking HIV treatment every day for one month. It may cause some side effects.
If you already have HIV, try your HIV clinic if the PEP is for someone you've had sex with.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP)
is when people at very high risk for HIV take HIV medicines daily to lower their chances of getting infected. PrEP can stop HIV from taking hold and spreading throughout your body. It is highly effective for preventing HIV if used as prescribed, but it is much less effective when not taken consistently. Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%. Among people who inject drugs, it reduces the risk by more than 70%. Your risk of getting HIV from sex can be even lower if you combine PrEP with condoms and other prevention methods.
If you test positiveIf you're diagnosed with HIV, you'll have regular blood tests to monitor the progress of the HIV infection before starting treatment. Two important blood tests are:
- HIV viral load test – a blood test that monitors the amount of HIV virus in your blood
- CD4 lymphocyte cell count – which measures how the HIV has affected your immune system
Treatment can be started at any point following your diagnosis, depending on your circumstances and in consultation with your HIV doctor.
HIV is treated with antiretroviral medications, which work by stopping the virus replicating in the body. This allows the immune system to repair itself and prevent further damage. A combination of HIV drugs is used because HIV can quickly adapt and become resistant. Some HIV treatments have been combined into one pill, known as a fixed dose combination, although these often cost more to prescribe. Usually, people who have just been diagnosed with HIV take between one and four pills a day. Different combinations of HIV medicines work for different people, so the medicine you take will be individual to you. Many of the medicines used to treat HIV can interact with other medications prescribed by your GP or bought over-the-counter. These include herbal remedies like St John's Wort, as well as some recreational drugs. Always check with your HIV clinic staff or your GP before taking any other medicines.
Missing a doseOnce treatment is started, you'll probably need to take medication for the rest of your life. For the treatment to be continuously effective, it needs to be taken regularly at the same time every day. Missing even a few doses increases the risk of your treatment not working and developing resistance to your HIV medicines. You'll need to develop a daily routine to fit your treatment plan around your lifestyle.
Side effectsHIV treatment can have side effects. If you get serious side effects, which is uncommon, you may need to try a different combination of drugs. Common side effects include:
- skin rashes
- sleep difficulties
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