What is PrEP? How it works and side effects
male couple smiling  

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is a drug that reduces your risk of contracting HIV. Although it won’t protect you against STIs, you can still benefit from starting PrEP if you have a HIV positive partner or you’re unaware of the HIV status of your sexual partners, for example.

Whether or not you decide to take it can take some consideration. Most people choose to take PrEP every day to know they’re always protected. It’s a commitment, as you’ll need to remember to take a tablet each day, and you might experience side effects, too.

In this guide we’ll talk about what PrEP is, how it works, go into detail about who could benefit, the funding, and the potential side effects.


What is HIV?


HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) was first identified in the 1980s. It isn’t curable yet, but the disease can be managed. HIV targets the immune system, and without effective treatment, you’ll be highly vulnerable to infections and cancers that your immune system will struggle to fight off.

There are three stages to HIV: acute, chronic and then finally, AIDS. You can only develop HIV by coming into contact with certain body fluids like blood, semen/vaginal fluids and breast milk. You can’t catch HIV through saliva, urine or sweat as there won’t be enough of the HIV infection in these substances.

If you think there's a possibility that you could have come into contact with HIV, take a test yourself with the OraQuick HIV Self Test. It's the most technically advanced HIV self-test available, providing an incredibly accurate result within minutes, simply and on your own terms.


What is PrEP and how does it work?


As we mentioned earlier, PrEP is an antiretroviral drug that reduces your risk of getting HIV, helping to keep you HIV negative. It contains the active ingredients emtricitabine and tenofovir which are actually used to treat HIV.

It’s around 92-99% effective at preventing HIV when taken correctly. It works by replicating itself, eventually creating enough replicas to block the HIV virus from entering your body. You’ll only be protected against HIV if there are high enough levels of PrEP in your system, so it’s very important that you take it as instructed.

You might see PrEP go by its brand name Truvada, but the majority of versions in the UK are generic (cheaper, non-branded versions, but just as effective!)

Certain people choose not to take PrEP everyday; instead, they’ll take it when they know they’re going to be at high risk for catching HIV, like before a date, holiday or night out. This is something known as on-demand dosing.

Be careful! As you’ll need to take it continuously for seven days before the event, you might prefer to take it everyday to know you're protected.


Who would PrEP benefit?


PrEP can be used by those belonging to a community or group that’s most at risk of being exposed to HIV, or people who have sex with people from those networks. You could benefit from taking PrEP if you:

  • Are a HIV-negative man who has unprotected sex with men or other people belonging to those networks
  • Have or have had a partner with HIV
  • Have a current or previous partner who comes from a place with high volumes of HIV
  • Have unprotected sex with people and you do not know their HIV status
  • Are a trans or non-binary person and are regularly having unprotected sex
  • Are injecting drugs or share needles

If you’re unsure whether you could benefit from using PrEP, speak to your GP or Chemist4U pharmacist for expert advice.


PrEP side effects


Before you decide to take PrEP, you should be aware of the potential side effects. Thankfully, they usually subside after the first few weeks. Side effects may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Indigestion 
  • Diarrhoea
  • Headache
  • Feeling weak or dizzy
  • Insomnia

A very small number of people taking PrEP develop serious problems. Sometimes, it can affect your kidney function. If you have kidney disease or other kidney problems, you must tell your prescriber beforehand. Additionally, it can also affect your bone health, but this is rare. This risk goes away once you stop taking PrEP, too.


How to get PrEP


At this point, you know what PrEP is, how it works, and whether you’d benefit from taking it. But how do you get it? You might be wondering whether you can get a prescription from your GP, pay privately, or get it for free on the NHS. 

Currently, to get PrEP for free on the NHS, your only option is to visit your local sexual health clinic. You will not be able to get it from your GP or community pharmacist at the present time.

Alternatively, you’re also able to buy PrEP privately by heading over to our clinic. By completing a quick and easy consultation about your health and medical history, one of our prescribing pharmacists will see if PrEP is suitable for you.

  Hand holding a blue tablet, PrEP  

If you’re at a high risk of contracting HIV, it’s strongly recommended to consider PrEP to protect yourself against infection. As it stands, HIV isn’t curable, but it is preventable.

If you need further information about PrEP, visit the NHS website. Or perhaps you’re interested in learning more about HIV and AIDS – if so, head over to our guide all about discussing the differences between both HIV and AIDS.

Need PrEP now? Visit the clinic section on our website to complete a quick and easy consultation. If you’re suitable for treatment, we’ll deliver it directly and discreetly to your door.

Alexandra Moses - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 29 March 2023
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