What Is a Prophylactic?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A prophylactic is a treatment or measure designed to prevent the development of disease or to reduce the risk of secondary complications in a patient who is already ill. Prophylaxis, as the use of prophylactics is known, is an important part of medical treatment. The use of preventative medicine can cut down on costs associated with health care by limiting the onset of preventable medical conditions; vaccines are a common example of a preventative measure that reduces the risk of contracting disease by inoculating patients' immune systems to help them resist infection.

A syringe used to administer vaccines, a type of prophylactic.
A syringe used to administer vaccines, a type of prophylactic.

Some prophylactic treatments are routine and recommended for almost all members of society, like vaccinations. Others may be a concern for specific populations or patients at particular risk. Patients going into surgery, for example, often receive preventative antibiotics. These medications prevent the onset of infection at the surgical site, addressing the drop in immune function after surgery that can make patients more vulnerable. Some patients also need prophylactic antibiotics for dental work and other procedures because they are at increased risk of infections like endocarditis.

Veterinarians receive vaccines to prevent rabies infections.
Veterinarians receive vaccines to prevent rabies infections.

Patients potentially exposed to infectious agents may receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). This is more commonly seen with the human immunodeficiency virus. If people come into contact with blood or other fluids from a patient known or believed to have an active HIV infection, PEP may be recommended. In this therapy, the patient takes high-dose antiviral drugs to prevent the replication of the virus and stop the development of an HIV infection.

Prophylactic treatment is also available for patients with an increased risk of disease due to their genetics or environment. In families with a history of breast cancer, for example, women may get tests to determine if they have gene mutations that might increase their cancer risk. These patients may consider a prophylactic mastectomy to prevent the onset of breast cancer if their risks are high. Likewise, veterinarians, with an increased risk of exposure to rabies due to their work, receive vaccines to prevent rabies infections.

In the case of a patient who is already ill, prophylaxis can prevent secondary complications. HIV/AIDS patients may receive medications to reduce the risk of secondary infections, for instance. These patients may get very sick from relatively routine and mild infections. The prophylactic treatment can halt the onset of infection by boosting the immune system, thus preventing complications like the development of respiratory disease and extending the patient's lifespan.

Condoms are a prophylactic designed to prevent the spread of STDs.
Condoms are a prophylactic designed to prevent the spread of STDs.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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