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Drug Abuse and HIV

Drug Abuse and HIV

Author: Justin Mckibben

Since the beginning of the addiction epidemic in America, drug abuse has been intimately linked with HIV/AIDS. The connection between drug abuse and HIV has to do with heightened risk, and not just of contracting and transmitting HIV, but also of worsening its symptoms and ultimately its consequences.

As of now no cure for HIV/AIDS exists, and neither has one been discovered for addiction, however there are methods of treatment and stages of recovery in some cases. HIV can be prevented and its transmission curtailed, and medications can be used to help prevent further transmission of HIV and the progression of HIV to AIDS, greatly prolonging lives.

Many people still don’t understand the severity of the disease, or the relationship between one and the other, so let us look at the details of HIV/AIDS infections and how they relate to drug abuse.


HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV damages the body by first infecting immune cells called CD4 positive (CD4+) T cells. These cells are essential to our biology for fighting infections.

HIV basically deforms the CD4+ T cells into infected “factories” which produce more of the HIV virus to infect other healthy cells, eventually eliminating the CD4+ T cells. So it uses the body’s own defenses to create more sick cells that ultimately overthrow the immune system.

As CD4+ T cells are lost and the immune system begins to break down, a person becomes more prone to illnesses and common infections.

This infection ultimately can cause what is known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) which is a illness that devastates the body’s ability to protect itself against disease.

AIDS is diagnosed when a person has one or more of these infections and a CD4+ cell count of less than 200. As history has shown, AIDS is a devastating disease that continues to destroy lives. In 2008 alone more than 16,000 people died from AIDS.

How Is HIV Spread?

HIV is transmitted by contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person, which can transpire during unprotected sex, and untreated infected women can pass HIV to their infants during:

  • Pregnancy
  • Delivery
  • Breastfeeding

The problem with drug abuse is that HIV can be spread through sharing injecting drug-use equipment, since these instruments come in direct contact with the blood-stream.

Even though most people know that intravenous drug use and needle-sharing can transmit HIV, a lot of people aren’t aware of the role that drug abuse in general plays in HIV infection.

Risk Behavior

Drug abuse and addiction can put someone in a mindset making them more likely to engage in risk behaviors such as having unsafe sex with an infected partner. Indeed, the most common way of contracting HIV is through unsafe sex, including “transactional” sex meaning to trading sex for drugs or money.

Drug abuse and addiction can also worsen HIV symptoms, as the immune system is already weakened and putting more harmful chemicals into the body is sure to only add to the break down. Drug abuse can also cause greater neuronal injury and cognitive impairment when combined with HIV infections.

Because of the strong link between drug abuse and the spread of HIV, drug abuse treatment can be an effective way to prevent the spread of HIV because most drug abuse treatment will offer HIV risk reduction counseling.

HIV/AIDS Testing

Testing for HIV is important, and especially important for intravenous drug users. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1.2 million people are infected with HIV in the United States and that 1 out of 5 people are infected and don’t even know it.

So when it comes to drug abuse, there is typically a variety of risk behaviors that addicts and drug users indulge in that could easily cause the spread of HIV, and further damage people already infected. Many drug abuse treatment facilities will offer HIV testing as part of a general physical assessment of an addict committing themselves to treatment.

In the end, understanding the dangers and knowing the your status will help prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV. Statistically people in drug abuse treatment who undergo counseling and get educated on HIV and the relation to drug abuse reduce or even completely stop their risk behaviors.

HIV and other infectious diseases are just example one of the countless devastating side-effects of drug abuse. Too many lives are either destroyed or ended because of drugs and alcohol, but there is always a way out for those willing to seek it. 

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