Futures Recovery Healthcare

AIDS and Addiction: A Deadly Connection


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HIV, AIDs, and addiction have been connected since the first-reported HIV-related illnesses and death 40 years ago. While it remains unclear as to whether human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency virus (AIDS) can lead to addiction, it is clear that drug users are at much greater risk for contracting HIV. In fact, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2015 6% of the new HIV cases were from intravenous drug use. This is just one way that drug use and substance abuse increases a person’s risk for contracting HIV which can lead to AIDS. 

December 1, 2021 is World AIDS Day and part of the aim of this vital campaign is to spread awareness about what increases a person’s risk factors for getting HIV, breaking the associated stigmas, increase screening for HIV and AIDS, educate the public, and ultimately support those across the globe living with HIV and AIDS. 

This year, the theme of World AIDS Day is Rock the Ribbon. In this campaign, the National AIDS Trust is asking members of the community to wear the red ribbon associated with AIDS awareness in order to increase awareness of this disease and the current state of treatment, recovery, and living. 

According to NIDA, 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV or human immunodeficiency virus which is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)  reports that of the 15.9 million people across the globe who inject drugs, about 3 million are infected with HIV. The highest concentration of these individuals are in Eastern Europe, Eastern and Southeast Asia, and Latin America. UNODC goes on to state that more than 40% of intravenous drug users in these areas are HIV positive. 

What Are HIV, AIDS, and Viral Suppression? 

HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system and is acquired through blood or bodily fluids of a person infected with HIV or AIDS. HIV can lead to AIDS when it is left untreated. Currently, there is no cure for HIV or AIDS however today’s treatments offer hope to many. 

When HIV and AIDS first began, it was a death sentence, however, today, it is not. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 85% of those with HIV were virally suppressed at their last test and ⅔ of those diagnosed with HIV showed viral suppression for over one year. 

Viral suppression occurs when the viral load in the bloodstream reaches below a certain level. HIV medications reduce the viral load in the body which in turn boosts the immune system and prevents illness. Viral suppression for HIV is having less than 200 copies of HIV per milliliter of blood. This data reveals that today, you can have HIV or AIDS and still live a happy, productive, and healthy life. Part of World AIDS Day’s goal is to spread this information. 

Additionally, if an individual is diagnosed with HIV but their viral load is undetectable (most likely from medications and living a healthy lifestyle) they are not able to pass the virus on to others. This is vital information that is not well known and contributes to the ongoing fear and stigmas associated with HIV and AIDS. 

In addition, despite HIV and AIDS being around for more than 40 years now, how it is contracted has also caused confusion for some. The National AIDS Trust surveyed people in the United Kingdom about HIV and AIDS. In this survey, one in five people reported believing you could get HIV from kissing someone. This is inaccurate information leading to further stigma and confusion about this virus. 

It’s vital to educate the public about HIV and AIDS in order to prevent the spreading of the virus as well as help those in need to get treatment and support. One important aspect of this is to reach those who are using drugs and help them either get treatment for the virus if they’ve contracted it or help them know how to protect themselves from contracting it. 

HIV, AIDS, and Drug Use

Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s, drug use and the virus have been inextricably linked. Today, drug users are at the heart of what is driving the spread of the virus worldwide. Intravenous or IV drug users are at the forefront of this. 

There are several ways that using drugs, IV or other, can increase a person’s risk for contracting HIV. These include the following: 

1. IV drug use. 

When individuals use drugs by injecting them, needles, equipment, and the like often have blood on them or in them. If these needles or ‘work’ equipment are shared, the person using them can become infected with HIV by the blood on these items. 

2. Impaired judgment

IV drug users aren’t the only ones at increased risk for contracting the HIV virus. Individuals who use alcohol or other drugs are also at an increased risk. This is because when under the influence of these substances, a person’s judgment is impaired and they are more likely to engage in unprotected sex. Unprotected sex, is another way HIV can be spread. In addition, being impaired can make it difficult to properly use protection such as condoms. In these cases, HIV can be spread as well. 

According to the CDC, there are certain drugs that seem to be more associated with contracting HIV. These are as follows: 

  • Alcohol

Binge drinking specifically is associated with an increased risk of contracting HIV. When someone consumes excessive amounts of alcohol they are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors including unprotected sex. This, in turn, can lead to contracting HIV. 

  • Opioids

Many individuals who abuse opioids also inject them with needles. The sharing of these needles and other drug equipment or works can lead to contracting HIV. Additionally, this drug use has been linked to having risky sex which also increases a person’s risk for acquiring this virus. 

  • Methamphetamines

Users of methamphetamines or meth often inject this drug too. This and the increased rate of engaging in risky sex while using meth also increases an individual’s risk for HIV. 

  • Crack Cocaine

This dangerous drug has also been associated with a higher rate of HIV infections. This is attributed to those who use crack turning to risky behaviors, like selling sex, to get money for drugs or trading sex for crack. 

  • Inhalants

The use of inhalants or amyl nitrite also known as poppers has been connected to risky sexual behaviors, use of other drugs, and other sexually transmitted diseases amongst gay men. This link has been long-standing. 

Additionally, having other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) increases a person’s risk for contracting HIV and other STDs. 

Treatment for HIV, AIDS, and Substance Abuse

Spreading awareness about what increases a person’s risk for HIV is important in order to help prevent more HIV cases. However, it’s also vital to understand how to get treatment and support if you already have the virus. 

As mentioned, decreasing the viral load is an important part of HIV treatment. Medications such as anti-retroviral therapy (ART) drugs are an important part of this treatment. Strict adherence to ART can prevent secondary infections and complications, slow the progression of HIV, and prolong one’s life. Getting STD testing, including for HIV and AIDS is a vital first step in protecting yourself and others. As mentioned, having other STDs can increase the risk of contracting HIV. 

When it comes to substance abuse or alcohol addiction and HIV, it’s important to get treatment for that issue too. No matter if someone has acquired HIV or not, getting treatment for substance abuse can not only help to decrease the risk of contracting it, it can also help lessen the burden of the disease if someone already has it. Drug use and alcohol abuse have been linked to worse outcomes from HIV and AIDS. 

According to the NIDA, drug use can speed the progression of HIV especially in the brain. Research indicates that drug use can not only speed the progression of the disease but also increase the viral load and increase mortality from HIV and AIDS. This is true even for patients who follow strict ART guidelines. 

In addition, drugs can make it easier for HIV to enter the brain and spur an immune response resulting in neuroinflammation. This HIV-induced brain inflammation can lead to neurocognitive disorders also known as NeuroHIV. NIDA reports that about 50% of those with HIV and AIDS have neurocognitive disorders as well. 

While treatment for HIV and AIDS has made leaps and bounds since the 1980s, there is still more work to be done. From finding a cure and better medications to learning how to work with aging HIV/AIDS patients with neurocognitive issues, researchers continue to strive to end this epidemic and bring relief to millions. However, until this happens, it’s vital to be aware of risk factors and take steps to reduce or eliminate yours. 

If you (or a loved one) are using drugs or abusing alcohol, Futures Recovery Healthcare can help. Our caring and compassionate expert staff have worked with many in this situation and helped them recover. Contact us online or call 866-804-2098.


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