Living with HIV: Substance Abuse 

Living with HIV and substance abuse have been very closely linked. In this article, AllLife outlines the dangers associated with substance abuse and living with HIV. Cindy Pivacic shares more about the link between substance abuse and HIV. 

Substance abuse

Substance abuse escalates your risk of contracting or transmitting HIV. For example, ten percent or more of HIV cases yearly can be attributed to injected drugs. Several explanations intensify as to how and why HIV is transmitted. Some reasons that increase abuse are accessibility, family history, poverty, unemployment, influence, and negligent parenting. Substance abuse is defined as the excessive use of psychoactive drugs, such as alcohol, pain medications or illegal drugs. It can lead to physical, social or emotional harm.


Substance abuse and HIV

The association between substance abuse and HIV can ruin the health of a person with HIV in numerous ways. Drugs and alcohol can weaken the immune system. HIV damages the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight infections and certain cancers. Drug or alcohol use can further damage the immune system and cause your HIV infection to worsen. The link between HIV and substance is not only linked to multiple users of single unclean needles but also risky lifestyles and reduced decision-making. The transmission of HIV is driven partly by the use of illegal drugs. Direct transmission made through sharing injection drug paraphernalia; indirect transmission happens through sexual contact with HIV-positive injection drug users. Furthermore, using both injected and non-injected illicit drugs increases the risk for HIV due to their actions, poor judgement and sexual risk-taking.

Living with HIV and substance abuse

When I was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2004, my taste buds started to be extremely sensitive to some foodstuffs, namely salt, chilli and alcohol. Shortly after this realization, I was diagnosed with Cancer and went on to undergo chemotherapy treatment. Consequently, I stopped consuming any form of alcohol. Discovering that I could no longer tolerate the smell of alcohol, and once my treatment ended, I never returned to consuming alcohol. Stopping was a good thing, as it benefited my health and supported my ARV treatment programme. Unfortunately for most people, it is not easy to decide to no longer consume alcohol or partake in drug use as they may use this as a crutch to get them through their diagnosis, so please be gentle as far as possible. 

Substance abuse effects

Casual substance use can escalate into substance abuse or an addiction faster than people realise. When left untreated, drug or alcohol abuse have damaging effects on the body and mind that worsen over time. When drug or alcohol habits get out of hand, the effects are extensive. Characteristically, substance abuse affects family, work, school and interactions with other people. Addiction is a chronic, life-threatening condition, like Hypertension, Arteriosclerosis, and adult Diabetes. Addiction has roots in genetic susceptibility, social circumstance, and personal behaviour. Certain drugs are highly addictive, rapidly causing biochemical and structural changes in the brain. Others can be used for longer periods of time before they begin to cause inescapable cravings and compulsive use. 

Signs of substance abuse

There are several collective early warning signs for substance abuse. Each substance affects the body erratically and subsequently manifests in various ways. Here are some things to look out for if you suspect an addiction to substance abuse:

  • Unable to remember events (blackouts)
  • Repeated conflicts 
  • Mood swings, depression or irritability 
  • Consuming alcohol on a regular basis to relax
  • Using alcohol to improve mood and sleep
  • Shaky hands
  • Bloodshot eyes, pinpoint or enlarged pupils
  • Nosebleeds caused by snorting drugs
  • Appetite or sleeping pattern changes
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Isolation
  • Lying
  • Seizures

Early warning signs of an addiction are intense. While a person may not present with every single item listed above, they will have noticeable identifiers. Similarly, some of these symptoms can be caused by other health conditions. 

Substance abuse treatment

If you are concerned about yourself, or a loved one, it is important to consider substance abuse treatment. This conversation will not be an easy one, and there is no ideal way to start. You will have two fundamental points to consider:

  • Let them know that you are there for them. 
  • That receiving expert treatment is crucial.

Their reaction may fluctuate. Consider this, and remember the onus is not up to you to secure substance abuse treatment. The decision is theirs, and you can only encourage and support their journey. There are many organisations that offer substance abuse treatment in South Africa.

A chronic condition can affect anyone. How you manage it is what makes the difference. You can get coverage of up to 1 million Rand for your chronic health condition and up to 10 million  if you are living with HIV, with AllLife. 

We believe all South Africans should have Life Cover.

Another first from AllLife who have always believed that all South Africans should have Life Cover, regardless of their health.

You are guaranteed a minimum of R 3 Million Life Cover without any medical test, but you could qualify for up to R 10 Million depending on your circumstances.

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