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Substance Abuse, Addiction and HIV

November 13, 2014

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Substance Abuse, Addiction and HIV

Table of Contents


Substance abuse and addiction cause serious health-related problems for many people, including those living with HIV (HIV+). The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the harmful use of alcohol results in over three million deaths each year around the world. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that between 16 and 39 million people had problems with drug use worldwide in 2012. Currently, there are about 16 million injection drug users (IDUs), -- three million of whom are living with HIV.

The US National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that in 2012, around seven percent of Americans -- almost 18 million people -- were abusing or addicted to alcohol. Among American girls and women, approximately four million abuse illegal drugs; almost as many abuse prescription drugs.

It is important to understand what substance abuse and addiction are, if they affect you, and what you can do to get help if you need it.

What Do These Terms Mean?

It can be helpful to know what people mean when they talk about substance use, substance abuse, dependence, and addiction.

Substance: When used with the words use or abuse, 'substance' generally refers to things like prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, street drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. What these substances have in common is that they change how we feel -- physically and/or emotionally -- when we take them.

Substance use: To use a substance simply means to put that substance in your body in some way (e.g., to swallow, eat, drink, smoke, snort, inject the substance). Some common examples of substance use include: drinking a glass of wine, snorting a line of cocaine, taking a prescription anti-anxiety pill, smoking a cigarette, or injecting (shooting) some heroin.

Substance abuse: This term is used to describe a pattern of substance use that involves serious problems or negative consequences in the user's life. These problems include, but are not limited to: not going to work or school, legal troubles, struggles in relationships with family or friends, and substance use in dangerous situations (e.g., while driving a car).

Dependence: This word is used most often to describe what happens when the body gets used to a particular substance. Sometimes the body 'learns' to tolerate a substance, so that more of the substance is needed to get the same effect. This is called physical dependence and also means that suddenly stopping the use of the substance will likely cause withdrawal symptoms. If a substance is used to get relief from emotional discomfort, emotional dependence may also develop. Often, substances that cause physical dependence are referred to as addicting.

Addiction: This word is used to refer to substance abuse that involves loss of control (compulsive use), continued use despite harmful consequences, and denial (refusal to acknowledge the problem). Addiction is now understood as a chronic (long-lasting) disease of the brain's reward and motivation system. Continued use of substances that alter how we feel can change our brain's chemistry and electrical wiring. In other words, addiction does NOT occur only because someone does not have enough willpower.

As with any disease, vulnerability to the disease of addiction differs from person to person. There are several factors that can put you at risk for abusing or becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs:

  • Substance abuse or addiction in the family
  • Early age of first use of drugs or alcohol
  • Trauma, abuse, violence, or neglect in childhood
  • Emotional problems like anxiety and depression

Substance Use and HIV

So how is the use of things like alcohol, street drugs, and prescription medications related to HIV? First, substance use increases the spread of HIV infection in the following ways. For many people, drinking and using drugs go together with sex. When people are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they are more likely to make bad decisions and have unsafe sex. People who use drugs are also more likely to exchange sex, including unprotected sex, for drugs or money to buy drugs. In the US in 2010, injection drug use (IDU) was responsible for about one out of eight new HIV infections among African-American and Hispanic women. Among white women, IDU was responsible for one in four new HIV infections.

Substance use also causes problems for people living with HIV. When you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you are more likely to miss doses of your HIV drugs. This reduces your adherence to the medications that are needed to keep your immune system healthy and to prevent drug resistance.

One of the functions of your liver is the breaking down of drugs and toxins that enter the body. If you take HIV drugs -- especially protease inhibitors (PIs) and non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) -- while also using street drugs or alcohol, your HIV drugs are 'competing' for your liver's attention with the other substance. As a result, both your HIV drugs and whatever substance you have taken may take longer to break down. This means that you may have higher than expected levels of either or both of them in your bloodstream. Having too much HIV drug in your system can cause serious, even life-threatening side effects. In the same way, an overdose of recreational drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol can be fatal.

Lastly, substance abuse plays a major role in domestic violence. Because violence is linked to poor decision-making and more risk taking, women who experience violence are more likely to suffer bad health effects. These effects include a higher risk for getting HIV as well as poor adherence to HIV drugs.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.

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