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Substance Abuse and HIV: It’s Not What You Think

Substance abusers show some of the highest rates of contracting HIV/AIDS, indicating a correlation between HIV and drug use.

There’s misconception among the general public in which many people feel that most substance abusers either have HIV or will eventually contract the deadly infection. Although it’s true that HIV occurs at an elevated rate among substance abusers compared to the general population, current research suggests that the reason that substance abusers are contracting HIV isn’t the same as it is widely perceived to be.

Elevated Rates of HIV and Drug Use Among Substance Abusers

When we think about HIV and drug use, the first thought is that it’s individuals who are intravenous drug users who are most susceptible to the contraction of HIV or other bloodborne pathogens.

Until somewhat recently, that was, in fact, the case. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that if you exclude the continent of Africa, up to 30 percent of global HIV infections occur due to intravenous drug use. With Africa included, the rate drops to only 10 percent, reflecting the high number of Africans with HIV who aren’t intravenous drug users.

Moreover, statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicate that one-third of all individuals with HIV regularly abuse alcohol or drugs. However, the statistics also indicate that there’s another cause for HIV transmission that accounts for a much higher percentage of HIV cases among drug users.

Data aggregated from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that only 16 percent of cases of HIV among drug users occurred due to intravenous drug use. Even more indicative of HIV risk among drug users is the tendency for substance abusers to engage in risky behavior such as unprotected sex. Unprotected sex accounted for the other 84 percent of HIV cases among drug users, suggesting that the majority of drug users aren’t actually getting HIV and AIDS from sharing needles, which is the common perception among the general public.

Substance Abuse and Impulsive or Risky Sexual Behavior

In order to understand why intravenous drug use is so dramatically overshadowed by the effect of risky, unprotected sex among drug users when it comes to rates of HIV, one must conceptualize the lifestyle of a habitual substance abuser.

Although heroin addiction has become an epidemic in the United States, there are still many individuals who are abusing other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and even prescription pain medication. With these other substances, intravenous use is less of an issue. In fact, the majority of mind-altering substances cannot be used intravenously, making it virtually impossible for users of those substances to contract HIV through the sharing of needles.

Mind-altering substances cause individuals to behave in risky or impulsive ways. Becoming intoxicated results in distorted perceptions, altered cognition, and an overall inability to make informed, objective choices. This clouded judgement is also why many addicts resort to increasing lows in order to sustain their addictions, stealing from loved ones or committing crimes, putting themselves at risk for legal consequences.

As such, substance abusers are a population that shows high rates of risky sexual behavior. According to a study, the most common behaviors that resulted in the contraction of HIV were inconsistent condom use, having more than one sexual partner, and resorting to exchanging sex and sexual favors for drugs or money.

Substance Abuse Interferes with HIV Treatment

Another big problem with the tendency for individuals with HIV to abuse alcohol and drugs is the fact that substance abuse greatly interferes with an individual’s medical treatments for the disease. It’s been found that the majority of HIV infectees also require some level of substance abuse treatment. Some of the theories for why so many individuals for HIV need treatment include the possibility that the substance abuse behavior is lingering from a past as an addict, or perhaps these individuals begin abusing alcohol or drugs as a means of coping with the experience and stress of receiving an HIV diagnosis.

In terms of the effects of substance abuse on HIV treatment, one of the most obvious effects concerns how substance abuse impedes one’s memory, decision-making, and ability to make and adhere to plans; therefore, substance abusers will often forget or miss appointments for HIV treatment, allowing the disease to progress and running the risk of developing AIDS. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) requires consistency in order to be optimally effective, which is another reason why inconsistent treatment is dangerous.

Additionally, individuals in the throes of active addiction experience a weakened immune system and are prone to things like poverty and homelessness, which can exacerbate symptoms of HIV, making it incredibly difficult to receive treatment and stabilize the disease. Therefore, it’s essential for individuals who suffer from both HIV and a substance abuse disorder to seek the appropriate treatments.

Need Addiction Treatment? Call Us Now

Since most drug treatment centers offer dual-diagnosis support for addicts who suffer from other, co-occurring or comorbid conditions, individuals can receive treatment for an HIV diagnosis while overcoming addiction. If you or someone you love would benefit from learning more about addiction treatment or HIV support, Drug Treatment Center Finder can help. Call us today at (855) 619-8070 for a free consultation and assessment. Don’t become another casualty of a treatable disease.