What is PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis)?
PEP is short for post exposure prophylaxis. It is any prophylactic (preventive) treatment started immediately after exposure to blood or bodily fluid contaminated with a pathogen (such as a disease-causing virus), in order to prevent infection and the development of disease.
Although multiple diseases can be transmitted from exposure to blood, the most serious infections are hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), and HIV. Fortunately, the risk of acquiring any of these infections is low.
In order to be exposed to a bloodborne pathogen, you must have contact with blood, a visibly bloody fluid (i.e., phlegm or urine containing blood), or another bodily fluid (i.e., semen or vaginal secretions) that contain an infectious organism (virus or bacteria). The blood or fluid must come in direct contact with some part of your body. A virus can enter your body through the bloodstream, open skin, or mucous membranes, which include the eye, mouth, or genitals. Contact with skin that is intact (without new cuts, scrapes, or rashes) poses no risk of infection.
Thus, exposure to a bloodborne pathogen is possible after:
- A skin injury such as a needlestick or cut with a sharp object
- Contact with a mucous membrane (including exposure through sexual intercourse, especially if an ulcer is present or vaginal/rectal tissues are injured)
- Non-intact skin
Infected Blood and/or Bodily Fluid
Anyone who is exposed to potentially infected blood or bodily fluids should be tested for HIV at the time of exposure (baseline) and at six weeks, three months, and six months after exposure.
The baseline HIV test is necessary (and required) to document that the HIV infection was not already present at the time of the incident. Experts from the United States Center for Disease Control recommend use of medications to reduce the risk of HIV infection if all of the following criteria are met:
- Exposure occurred less than 72 hours previously
- One or more of the following areas were exposed: the vagina, rectum, eye, mouth, or other mucous membrane, open skin, through the skin (i.e., from a sharp object or needle)
- One or more of the following bodily fluids were involved in the exposure: blood, semen, vaginal secretions, rectal secretions, breast milk, or any body fluid that is visibly contaminated with blood.
However, the CDC also recommends that each situation be considered on an individual basis; preventive treatment may be recommended to people who do not meet these criteria in some situations.
The CDC recommends NOT using preventive treatment when:
- The exposure occurred more than 72 hours prior
- Intact skin was exposed
- The bodily fluid is urine, nasal secretions, saliva, sweat, or tears, and is not visibly contaminated with blood
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Wash the area. The first and most important step after being exposed to blood or bodily fluids is to wash the area well with soap and water. You can clean small wounds and punctures with an antiseptic such as an alcohol-based hand gel, since alcohol kills HIV, hepatitis B virus, and hepatitis C virus. However, the alcohol may sting. For mucosal surfaces (mouth, nose), the area should be flushed with copious amounts of water. Eyes should be flushed with saline or water. There is no evidence that expressing fluid by squeezing the wound will further reduce the risk of bloodborne infection.
Treatments are available to reduce the risk of becoming infected with HIV after exposure. Previous studies have suggested that the use of an anti-HIV medication, reduced the already low risk of healthcare workers becoming infected with HIV by about 81% (but perhaps a higher rate of prevention with the new anti-HIV agents available). The risk of becoming infected with HIV as a result of other types of exposure (i.e., trauma, rape) is probably even lower than the risk of infection after a needlestick.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is recommended by the CDC to those who are HIV negative but are at a high-risk of being exposed to and contracting HIV.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) lowers the risk of contracting HIV by up to 92 percent for those who take the medicine consistently.