Substance abuse and HIV: A risky business.

Educate yourself on the dangers and risks substance abuse has on HIV and transmission thereof.

Substance abuse and HIV: A risky business.

HIV and substance abuse have been very closely linked

Since the very beginning and discovery of HIV, HIV and substance abuse have been very closely linked as HIV used to be associated with injecting drug users and promiscuous behaviour prevalent amongst substance abusers. In the USA alone injection drug use is responsible for approximately 10% of new HIV infections annually.

Transmission and risky behaviour

As an HIV positive individual when you inject drugs and share the drug equipment with HIV negative people you can infect them with the virus immediately as your blood might stay on the needles or spread in the drug mixture, meaning that the next user could inject the virus straight into their bloodstream.

In addition, the use of alcohol including binge drinking  and the  non-medical use of drugs  such as methamphetamine, crack cocaine and “club drugs “such as ecstasy can significantly increase the likelihood that you will engage in risky behaviours, including having sex without a condom, or trading sex for drugs, money, food, or shelter. This can increase your risk of transmitting the virus or getting a sexually transmitted infection, and this might weaken your immune system and make it harder to be treated.

Poor response to treatment

Substance abuse can in some cases result in speeding up the progression of the virus in your body as some substances like methamphetamine (meth) can decrease your CD4 levels. Drugs and alcohol can also inhibit your memory and ability to make good judgement calls and sound decisions, rendering you at risk of compromising your daily treatment routine. If you don’t consistently take your medication as a result of drinking or using drugs at the same time every day, as is required when using antiretroviral drugs, this interruption in routine may result in your bodybuilding a resistance to the ARV drugs. Skipping a dose of ARV’s is not optional, even occasionally, as this gives the HI Virus the opportunity to multiply in your body.

Hepatitis C and TB

Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver disease and cancer and can be caused by some injectable drugs. Due to a weakened immune system this condition, like many others, progresses even faster in HIV positive people. Tuberculosis (TB) remains the leading cause of death amongst HIV positive individuals and is the reason why the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends TB screening for all people living with the virus. This condition can be made worse by substance abuse as it further weakens the immune system and exposes you risks associated with opportunistic diseases.

The importance of treatment for drug and alcohol use

Substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation programs (rehab) are easier to access these days than ever before and are very important in order to live longer healthier lives. If you are living with HIV and are battling substance abuse getting assistance with this can be just as important as your ARV treatment regime because continued substance abuse may result in non-adherence to your HIV medication or it not working as it should.

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HIV and smoking

We have all seen the cancer warnings on tobacco products and smoking continues to be one of the leading causes of many cancers and respiratory disorders. Research by the CDC has indicated that the rate of smoking is 2 to 3 times higher among HIV positive people as opposed to their HIV negative counterparts. HIV positive smokers are more likely to suffer from these conditions:

  • Oral thrush (a mouth infection, also called oral candidiasis).
  • Hairy leukoplakia (white mouth sores).
  • Bacterial pneumonia.
  • Pneumocystis pneumonia (a dangerous lung infection).
  • Heart disease and stroke.
  • Lung cancer, head and neck cancer, cervical cancer, and anal cancer.

Research has also shown that smoking daily reduces the effects of antiretroviral therapy by up to 40%. Passive or second-hand smoking is also harmful to your blood vessels and may also increase your risk for heart disease so even if you don’t smoke but surround yourself with smokers this can be harmful to your health.

Benefits of quitting

Quitting smoking has a lot of major health benefits for both HIV positive and HIV negative individuals, so it’s advisable to get help if you are struggling to quit. 

Where to find help

If you or a loved one needs help with Drug Addiction you may contact:

083 900 6962

For assistance with Alcohol addiction contact:

011 683 9101

For assistance to quit smoking contact:

011-720 3145 / 0800 22 66 22


Helleberg M, May MT, Ingle SM, et al. Smoking and life expectancy among HIV-infected individuals on antiretroviral therapy in Europe and North America. AIDS. 2015;29:221-229

We all have questions.

Below are some of the answers to the most common questions that you need to know.

What is usually the first sign of HIV?

After getting infected with HIV, most patients only experience moderate flu-like symptoms. Typically, the illness is sudden in onset and is characterised by fever, swelling of the lymph glands, a measles-like rash all over the body and ulcers in the mouth and sometimes on the genitalia.

What are the 4 stages of HIV?

  • Stage 1: Infection – Exposure to infected bodily fluids.
  • Stage 2: Asymptomatic – HIV quickly spreads and the patient becomes seropositive for HIV antibodies.
  • Stage 3: Symptomatic – The immune system is now engaged in a constant battle with the rapidly replicating virus.
  • Stage 4: AIDS – At this stage, the patient’s CD4+ count is 200 cells per mm3 or less.

How soon can HIV be detected by a blood test?

No test can detect HIV immediately after infection. The time between initial infection and a detectable viral load is called the window period. It can take anywhere from 2-12 weeks to after exposure detect whether you are HIV-positive or not, depending on which testing method is used.

How long does it take to show symptoms of HIV?

Following initial infection, there is a period of intense, unchecked viral replication that occurs. It usually takes two to four weeks after infection and can last about one to two weeks, after which there tends to be a slight recovery, and the infected individual is considered to be seropositive for HIV antibodies.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted from one person to another through the exchange of body fluids. The main method of transmission in South Africa is through unprotected sexual activity.

Does HIV test affect life insurance?

Being HIV-positive can affect standard life insurance policies, particularly if your status changes from HIV-negative to HIV-positive within a particular age range. That’s why AllLife covers all lives. Your HIV status doesn’t prevent you from getting cover with us.

Can HIV-positive women have children?

Yes, HIV-positive women can enjoy healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy HIV-negative babies. Through the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme has been highly effective in reducing transmission risk to under 1%.

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