A prophylactic treatment is a medical treatment used to prevent the appearance of a disease or other medical problem in a patient who is healthy at the time of treatment. A form of preventative medicine, prophylactic treatment can offer a very cost-effective way to preserve health. It can minimize the risk of taking medication because prophylaxis is generally safer and simpler than the treatment of an active medical condition. Many types of prophylactic treatment are in common use. These treatments range from routine vaccinations to the use of post-exposure prophylactics to reduce the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS following exposure.
Vaccination is the most widespread form of prophylactic treatment. When determining whether or not to recommend such treatment, health officials weigh such factors as the cost of vaccine production and distribution, the severity of the disease that is being protected against, and the risk factors, if any, associated with the vaccine. Modern vaccinations are generally very safe except for those few people who have an allergy to the underlying vaccine base, so this is usually not a concern. In the very earliest days of preventative medicine, risk was a major factor, particularly with diseases such as smallpox, for which inoculation could cause the disease.
Antibiotics are, in some cases, used as prophylactic treatment against bacterial infection. The ciprofloxacin used to ward off potential infection by anthrax spores in 2001 is an extreme example of this. Prophylactic use of antibiotics can be very risky, however, as it can lead to a much higher level of drug resistance among bacteria and reduce the efficacy of antibiotics, a problem that has been seen in some cases as a result of the use of antibiotics in animal populations. These risks mean that antibiotics are used with caution as a preventative measure, although they are still very useful in patients with injuries that are especially susceptible to infection or in patients about to undergo some forms of surgery.
In other cases, prophylactic treatment can be provided after a patient has been exposed to an infectious agent but before any symptoms have appeared, in an effort to allow that patient's immune system a better chance to ward off infection. Post-exposure prophylaxis is most often used when dealing with very dangerous infections such as HIV/AIDS. A patient likely to have been exposed to this virus will often be placed on a powerful course of anti-retroviral medication in an attempt to prevent a viral infection from developing.