How to Provide Post-Exposure Prophylaxis for Bloodborne Pathogens: A Step-by-Step Guide

Bloodborne pathogens pose a significant risk to individuals exposed to them, with potentially severe consequences, including HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C infections. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is crucial in preventing infection following such exposures. This guide provides a detailed step-by-step approach to administering PEP effectively, ensuring timely intervention and reducing the risk of transmission.


Understanding Bloodborne Pathogens

Bloodborne pathogens, like HIV, HBV, and HCV, are harmful microorganisms spread through blood and specific body fluids (e.g., semen, vaginal secretions). They pose risks through needlestick injuries, unprotected sexual contact, and exposure to infected fluids.


Identifying Exposure Risks

Exposure to bloodborne pathogens occurs in various settings, including healthcare facilities, laboratories, and community environments. Occupational exposures are common among healthcare workers, while nonoccupational exposure occurs during activities such as first aid, needle sharing, or unprotected sexual contact.

  • Occupational Exposure: These occur in the workplace and involve individuals whose job responsibilities involve direct contact with blood or bodily fluids. Healthcare workers, laboratory personnel, and first responders are examples of those at higher risk of occupational exposure.
  • Nonoccupational Exposure: These occur outside of the workplace and involve accidental injuries or situations where individuals come into contact with blood or bodily fluids through non-work-related activities. Examples include household accidents, community emergencies, sexual contact, or injection drug use.


What is Post-exposure Prophylaxis?

Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is a preventive treatment administered to individuals who have potentially been exposed to a bloodborne pathogen such as HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C. PEP involves taking antiretroviral medications to reduce the risk of infection after exposure to contaminated blood or bodily fluids.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) have issued guidelines outlining the appropriate utilization of PEP for bloodborne pathogens. These guidelines cover PEP administration for microorganisms transmitted via airborne or droplet spread, direct contact, and infections acquired following traumatic injuries.

Get CPR Certified in Minutes for as low as $19.95

Join thousands of professionals that have been certified online with us
100% Online Certification
Fast & Convenient
Instant Certification Card
Nationally Accepted
Get Started
5 star
from 259,205 reviews


Tailored for the community and workplace
Offer Expires:
Comprehensive CPR Training Across All Ages
Choking response training
Recovery position technique course

How PEP works to prevent infection?

PEP works by inhibiting viral replication and reducing the viral load in the body, thereby decreasing the likelihood of establishing infection. When started promptly after exposure, PEP helps prevent the virus from establishing itself in the body's cells, reducing the risk of infection and subsequent transmission. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to provide post-exposure prophylaxis:


Step 1: Immediate Actions Following Exposure

Following exposure to blood or body fluids, immediate action is crucial. The exposed area should be cleaned thoroughly with soap and water. Additionally, the incident should be reported according to workplace or healthcare facility protocols to ensure appropriate follow-up and documentation.


Step 2: Assessing the Exposure

The next step involves assessing the risk of transmission based on factors such as the type of exposure, the source patient's viral status, and the presence of any open wounds or mucous membrane contact. Decision-making criteria for initiating PEP vary depending on the perceived risk of transmission.


Step 3: Initiating PEP

Timing is critical when initiating PEP, as it is most effective when started as soon as possible after exposure. The PEP regimen typically consists of antiretroviral medications taken for a specified duration, usually ranging from 28 to 30 days, depending on the specific guidelines and protocols.


Step 4: Monitoring and Follow-Up

Following initiation of PEP, the exposed individual should undergo regular medical evaluations and laboratory tests to monitor for any signs of infection. Additionally, monitoring for side effects of PEP medications is essential, and counseling and support should be provided throughout the follow-up period.


Step 5: Prevention and Education

To prevent future exposures, it is essential to implement strategies such as using personal protective equipment (PPE), practicing safe needle handling techniques, and following universal precautions. All individuals at risk of exposure should be educated on safe practices for handling blood and body fluids.


What are the side effects of PEP medications?

Side effects of PEP medications varies depending on the specific antiretroviral drugs used. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fatigue, and dizziness. Some individuals experience allergic reactions or liver toxicity as well. Health care providers must monitor patients closely for adverse reactions and provide appropriate management.


What are the differences in PEP protocols for HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C?

PEP protocols for HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C differ in terms of the medications used, duration of treatment, and monitoring requirements. For HIV, PEP typically involves a combination of antiretroviral drugs taken for 28 to 30 days. For hepatitis B, PEP includes hepatitis B immune globulin (HBIG) and antiviral medications, with variations in treatment duration based on the specific exposure scenario. PEP for hepatitis C is less common and involves antiviral medications depending on the risk assessment and exposure circumstances.


What factors influence the effectiveness of PEP?

Several factors influence the effectiveness of PEP in preventing infection after exposure to bloodborne pathogens. These factors include the timeliness of PEP initiation (starting as soon as possible after exposure), adherence to the prescribed medication regimen, the specific pathogen involved, the viral load of the source patient (if known), the severity of exposure, and individual patient factors such as immune status and liver function.


How does the cost of PEP affect its accessibility and use?

The cost of PEP medications and healthcare services impacts the accessibility and use of PEP, particularly for individuals without insurance coverage or limited financial resources. High costs deter some individuals from seeking PEP or completing the full treatment course. Access to affordable healthcare services and medication assistance programs helps improve accessibility and adherence to PEP.


How are advancements in medicine impacting PEP protocols?

Advancements in medicine, particularly in antiretroviral therapy and hepatitis treatments, have improved PEP protocols. Newer antiretroviral drugs with improved safety profiles and simplified dosing regimens have enhanced the tolerability and adherence to PEP. Additionally, the development of direct-acting antiviral agents for hepatitis C has expanded treatment options for PEP in certain exposure scenarios. Ongoing research and clinical trials continue to inform updates and refinements in PEP protocols based on emerging evidence and therapeutic advancements.

Tips for Healthcare Providers

Here are some tips for healthcare providers regarding best practices in managing exposure incidents and administering post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP):

  • Immediate Response: Act promptly following an exposure incident. Provide first aid as necessary, such as washing the exposed area with soap and water.
  • Documentation: Document all details of the exposure incident accurately and promptly. This includes the date, time, nature of exposure, individuals involved, and any pertinent medical information.
  • Risk Assessment: Conduct a thorough risk assessment to determine the potential for transmission of bloodborne pathogens. Consider factors such as the type of exposure, source's infection status, and the presence of visible blood.
  • Consultation: Seek expert consultation from infectious disease specialists or occupational health professionals when determining the need for PEP and selecting appropriate medications.
  • Initiating PEP: Administer PEP promptly if indicated based on the risk assessment. Follow the prescribed regimen closely, considering medication dosage, frequency, and duration factors.
  • Monitoring and Follow-Up: Schedule follow-up appointments as recommended to monitor the exposed individual for signs of infection or adverse reactions to PEP medications. Provide ongoing support and counseling to address any concerns or anxieties related to the exposure incident and PEP regimen.
  • Education and Training: Educate healthcare staff on infection control practices and strategies to minimize the risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens. This includes proper handling and disposal of sharps, adherence to standard precautions, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Review and Improvement: Conduct regular reviews of exposure incident protocols and PEP procedures to identify areas for improvement. Encourage staff feedback and participation in developing strategies to enhance workplace safety.
  • Psychological Support: Recognize and address the psychological impact of exposure incidents on health care providers. Offer access to counseling services or peer support groups to assist individuals in coping with stress or anxiety related to potential exposure to bloodborne pathogens.
  • Documentation and Reporting: Ensure thorough documentation of exposure incidents and PEP administration in the individual's medical records. Report any occupational exposures to the appropriate authorities for regulatory compliance and follow-up investigations.


By following these best practices, health care providers effectively manage exposure incidents, administer PEP, and ensure patients' and healthcare staff's safety and well-being.




  • Challenges of HIV diagnosis and management in the context of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), test and start and acute HIV infection: a scoping review
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services