HIV exposure treatment

There is a treatment that may prevent HIV infection. It’s called PEP (post exposure prophylaxis). But act fast, the sooner PEP is taken after exposure the more likely it is to work. Delaying may mean the treatment will not work.

If the exposure was not recent you should still go to a clinic for an HIV test as early diagnosis is important.

"It was down at the beach. It was dark and I thought he had a condom on. He was a bit rough and he took off as soon as he had finished. I am just feeling a bit scared and worried." – Patrick

Post exposure prophylaxis (PEP)

PEP is taking HIV medications for 4 weeks after having a risky exposure to reduce the chance of becoming infected with HIV. The drugs must be started within 72 hours. 

Some people develop side effects, which varies from person to person. The most common side effects include nausea, vomiting, headaches, diarrhoea and fatigue. Very occasionally people can develop serious side effects.

PEP reduces the risk of contracting HIV by about 80% after needle stick injuries. We do not know for certain how well it works after sexual exposure, but the information we have suggests it does reduce the risk, but it is not 100% effective.

Who should consider PEP

Anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to HIV within the past 72 hours should seek information about PEP from a sexual health clinic, emergency department, or your local doctor.

PEP is used if you have had a risky contact, such as unprotected anal or vaginal sex or are sharing injecting equipment and the person has HIV or is at higher risk of HIV.

Your doctor or nurse will help you weigh up the possible benefits and the risks of the medications.

"I had unsafe sex at a party. I panicked and headed straight to the hospital. I was still out of it and didn’t know what PEP was called. I had to tell the nurse what I’d done and that I’d heard about this treatment. It was bloody embarrassing but she didn’t seem fazed." - Don

Where to get PEP

Information about PEP is available from the Clinic 34 network in the Northern Territory, Monday to Friday, 8 am – 4.30 pm.

Emergency Departments at Royal Darwin Hospital and Alice Springs Hospital provide PEP after hours and on weekends.

In remote areas all clinics can access PEP via advice from Royal Darwin Hospital.

Cost of PEP

This is free to you. The drugs are funded by the NT Government.

HIV test and PEP

You should still have an HIV test. PEP is not guaranteed to prevent HIV infection. 

You should be tested for HIV at the time you start PEP and at 4-6 weeks and 3 months afterwards.

Sex and PEP

Don’t risk further exposure to yourself or others by having unsafe sex (or sharing needles) while on PEP. There is no evidence that PEP will protect against another exposure to HIV while you are taking the treatment.

Other drugs and PEP

PEP drugs can affect the way in which other drugs (prescription or non-prescription) work in the body.

They also affect the way the liver processes other drugs. This can lead to an increase in blood levels of some drugs to a point that is dangerous or even lethal.

It is very important to discuss with your doctor any drugs (including alcohol and other recreational drugs) you are taking or planning to take while on PEP.

"I hope I never become positive because there’s no way I want to take these drugs for the rest of my life." – Kym

Safe sex and safe injecting

PEP is not a vaccine or a cure for HIV/AIDS. Safe sex and safe injecting practices are still the most effective way to prevent HIV infection and infection with other sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis and blood borne viruses like hepatitis B and C.

"Taking PEP was a bit of a wakeup call. I think I’d become a bit slack. But after thinking about the possibility of becoming positive, I’m sure I won’t take a chance like that again." – Pete

Facts about PEP

  • PEP is a 4 week course of anti-HIV drugs that may prevent you becoming HIV positive after an exposure to the virus
  • it is an important option to consider if you think you may have been exposed to HIV
  • you don’t have long to act. If you think you have been exposed to HIV, you should see a doctor urgently, and definitely within 72 hours
  • PEP can have some unpleasant side effects and may react with other drugs you are taking
  • there is no evidence that PEP will work in every case
  • PEP is not a vaccine or a cure for HIV/AIDS.

The best way to avoid being infected with HIV is through safe sex and safe injecting practices.


For more information contact the Centre for Disease Control's Clinic 34 or the Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council: (08) 8944 7777.

Last updated: 15 November 2016

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