Types of Prophylaxis in Medicine

The term prophylaxis means preventive. From the Greek word "phylax," meaning "to guard" and "watching," prophylactic treatment is used in health care to prevent illness.

This article discusses what types of prophylaxis are used in health care and how they help patients.

Team of doctors performing surgery in operating theater
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What Is Prophylactic Health Care?

In medicine, the term prophylactic is used to describe procedures and treatment that prevent something from happening. This can include surgeries, dental cleanings, vaccines, and birth control.

For example, a prophylactic hepatitis vaccine prevents the patient from getting hepatitis. A prophylactic dental cleaning prevents tooth decay.

Prophylaxis is a good thing in health care. It prevents a problem by addressing the potential issue before it actually becomes problematic. The prevention of disease is often easier, faster, less expensive, and less painful than treating the disease.

In general conversation, the term prophylactic is sometimes used to refer to condoms. This is because they are considered preventive for unwanted pregnancies.

Recap

Prophylactic health care includes treatment and procedures that help you prevent illness or other conditions. For example, vaccines can help prevent infectious diseases.

Types of Prophylactic Care

Preventive care takes many forms. It may even continue after a disease has been identified.

Generally speaking, prophylaxis doesn't just mean preventing disease. It can also mean preventing a disease from getting worse or preventing over-treatment.

The different types of prophylaxis include:

Primary Prophylaxis: This means preventing or increasing resistance to a disease that you don't have. This may include routine medical checkups and vaccinations. Pap smears, screening colonoscopies, and mammograms are often done when there are no signs of disease. Once a disease is diagnosed, screening is no longer considered primary prophylaxis.

Secondary Prophylaxis: Measures are taken to prevent a medical problem or injury from happening again. This could be changing your work environment to prevent re-injury or taking a statin to prevent another heart attack.

Tertiary Prophylaxis: These are steps to help recover from a chronic, ongoing disease or an injury with long-lasting effects. Examples include stroke rehabilitation programs or disease management programs for heart failure.

Quaternary Prophylaxis: This is the idea that excessive medical treatment can sometimes cause harm and should be prevented. If patients will not benefit from further medical treatment, then they should not be subjected to it.

For example, if a patient does not respond to the first round of chemotherapy, there is no reason to do a second round. Chemotherapy causes side effects, so you can prevent harm by stopping treatment.

Recap

Prophylaxis can mean preventing an illness, keeping it from getting worse, or stopping excessive treatment.

Prophylactic Antibiotics

The term "prophylactic antibiotics" refers to antibiotics that are given to prevent infection rather than treat it.

Prophylactic antibiotics are avoided whenever possible in health care. The overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance and provides no benefit to the patient.

Your physician may choose to prescribe prophylactic antibiotics because the potential benefit outweighs the risk of harm. In some cases, preventive antibiotics can reduce the risk of infection for patients at high risk. 

Surgery

Some surgeries are at higher risk for bacterial infections, so you may be prescribed a preventive antibiotic. These surgeries include:

Before surgery, patients may receive prophylactic antibiotics within 30 minutes of the skin incision. They may receive it again every four hours or if there is a large amount of blood loss.

Dental Procedures

People with serious heart problems are given prophylactic antibiotics in dental procedures. That's because dental procedures carry a specific risk of spreading an infection to the heart. High-risk individuals include those with:

  • A history of infective endocarditis, a serious heart infection 
  • A cardiac transplant with valve problems
  • A heart valve replacement
  • Specific types of heart defects present at birth

People with joint replacements are no longer recommended to receive antibiotic prophylaxis prior to dental procedures.

Your surgeon will let you know if you should have prophylactic antibiotics before your procedure. They will usually ask questions about your health history to help determine if you are at high risk for infection.

Recap

Your doctor or surgeon will talk to you about whether you should have prophylactic antibiotics before a procedure. These antibiotics are only given when there's a high risk of infection.

Summary

Prophylactic health care helps prevent or reduce the risk of health problems. This preventive care includes dental cleanings, birth control, and vaccinations, but it can also mean stopping treatment to prevent harm. Prophylactic antibiotics may be given to patients at high risk for infection when undergoing surgery or dental procedures.

A Word From Verywell

Prophylactic, or preventive, health care has an important role in helping you stay healthy. Be sure to schedule regular check-ups with your doctor and dentist. They can both work with you to decide what types of prophylactic care are necessary at each stage in life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a prophylactic mastectomy?

    A prophylactic mastectomy is a surgery to remove breast tissue for those at high risk of breast cancer. Risk factors include those with a genetic mutation or those who had radiation therapy to the chest before age 30. Prophylactic double mastectomy has been shown to reduce breast cancer risk by 95% in those with a genetic mutation.

  • What is a prophylactic drug?

    A prophylactic drug is one that's used to prevent a disease or condition. For example, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is taken to prevent HIV. PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV through sex by about 99% and injection drug use by at least 74%.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Musich S, Wang S, Hawkins K, Klemes A. The Impact of Personalized Preventive Care on Health Care Quality, Utilization, and Expenditures. Popul Health Manag. 2016;19(6):389-397.  doi:10.1089/pop.2015.0171

  2. Regular Check-Ups are Important. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  3. When your cancer treatment stops working. US National Library of Medicine.

  4. Salkind AR, Rao KC. Antibiotic Prophylaxis To Prevent Surgical Site Infections. Am Fam Physician. 2011 Mar 1;83(5):585-590.

  5. Antibiotic Prophylaxis Prior to Dental Procedures. American Dental Association.

  6. National Cancer Institute. Surgery to reduce the risk of breast cancer.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

Additional Reading
  • Antibiotic Prophylaxis Prior to Dental Procedures. American Dental Association.