Drugs to Prevent HIV

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

An explanation of HIV and the two methods of drug treatment to prevent HIV will be described in this lesson. We will explain the medications used, dosage and side effects.


I bet you are well aware of the different diseases that exist in our world today. We have immunizations to several of them and so we aren't as concerned about those anymore. Yet, there are other diseases that are very concerning. Some diseases and conditions have become so prevalent that most people either have it or know someone that has it. Over the last 30-40 years, this has become the case with HIV.

HIV is short for human immunodeficiency virus which is a virus that infects and attacks the immune system. In the last stage of the infection, it can cause the full loss of the immune system and inability of the body to protect itself which we refer to as AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. This disease has claimed millions of lives, but people are beginning to live longer with HIV and even get to the point where the virus is no longer detected in the body. Even with this advancement, most people want to do their best to steer clear of HIV altogether.

Scientists and medical professionals have worked together to set up guidelines to help prevent the spread of HIV. You probably have heard the guidelines for decreasing your likelihood of contracting HIV. Practice safe sex or no sex, don't share needles, and know your and your partner's HIV statuses. The guidelines have helped to slow the HIV epidemic, which is great. Now we have some new tools in the arsenal against HIV.

Drug Prevention of HIV

The best time to prevent HIV is obviously before you may even be exposed to it. In order to accomplish this, PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis may be taken. The best understood and most widely used and accepted PrEP drug is a pill that is a combination of tenofovir and emtricitabine. These are antiretroviral medications which are medications that keep the virus from being able to insert itself into our DNA and multiplying. By preventing that step in the infection process, HIV is not able to attack the immune system.

Combination pills are used for HIV prevention
Picture of PrEP and PEP pills

There is also an option available to decrease the likelihood of an HIV infection, even right after you may have been exposed. We refer to this as PEP or post-exposure prophylaxis. The antiretroviral medications, tenofovir and emtricitabine along with either raltegravir or dolutegravir, are given for PEP. Time is definitely of the essence when it comes to post-exposure prevention of HIV. The best time for you to use this prevention is as soon as possible after being exposed to HIV, but absolutely within 72 hours.

Dose and Side Effects

So, you're probably thinking that it's great that there is a medication available to help prevent HIV, but how and when do you take it. Perhaps you are concerned about the list of side effects. After all, we have all had that experience of seeing a commercial for a new drug that sounds great, but then there's this long list of side effects that make you wonder if you would ever want to take it or just stay sick!

Well, there is great news in the case of the current PrEP treatment. It is one pill a day. Doesn't get much easier than that, right? The side effects also aren't too bad. People who take PrEP usually complain of nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headache and rash if they experience any side effects.

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