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What is the link between drug use and viral infections like HIV and hepatitis?

Drug use increases a person’s risk for getting a viral infection, like HIV or hepatitis, in two ways:

  • When people inject drugs and share needles or other drug equipment. This can transfer viruses from one person to another, because bodily fluids like blood stay on the equipment in tiny amounts—even if the equipment is wiped “clean.”
  • When drug use leads to poor judgment and risky behavior. Using drugs and alcohol can affect the choices a person makes. For example, it can lead to unsafe sex. This puts a person at risk for getting hepatitis from—or giving it to—someone else.

Here are some important things to think about:

  • Drugs can also make it easier for HIV to enter the brain and trigger an immune response and the release of toxins in the nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). This can cause a kind of brain disorder called NeuroHIV.
  • Drug use and addiction can also speed up the progression of HIV and its consequences, especially in the brain, making AIDS-related deaths more likely.
  • Drug and alcohol use can also directly damage the liver, increasing risk for chronic liver disease and cancer among those infected with hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). AIDS is the final stage of an HIV infection when the body can no longer fight off diseases. Most people say “HIV/AIDS” when talking about either the virus (HIV) or the disease it causes (AIDS).

HIV destroys certain cells in the immune system—called CD4+ cells. The immune system helps the body fight diseases, but HIV weakens the body’s ability to heal itself. AIDS is diagnosed when people have one or more of these infections and a low number of CD4+ cells in their body.

HIV/AIDS has been a global epidemic for more than 30 years. People born after 1980 have never known a world without it. More than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV.1 It is thought that 1 in 7 people are unaware they have the condition.

A person can have HIV for many years, and the virus may or may not progress to the disease of AIDS. This is why a person may appear healthy when, in fact, they carry the HIV virus and can pass it on to others through sexual activity or needle sharing. A medical test is the only way to know if a person has HIV.

Treatment

There is no cure for HIV. But, with proper care, HIV can be managed. Learn the link.

Among people ages 13 to 19, more than 8,200 were diagnosed with HIV in 2017.2 However, this does not include the number of youth that have not (yet) been diagnosed. At the end of 2016, the government estimated that 50,900 youth had HIV in the United States; but only 56 percent knew they had it.3 See the latest HIV/AIDS statistics by age.

Many people infected with viral hepatitis don’t have any symptoms and so don’t know they have the infection. It is estimated 3.5 million people are living with hepatitis C and 850,000 people are living with hepatitis B, the two most common forms of the virus. See the latest hepatitis statistics.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent HCV infection or HIV/AIDS, but people can reduce the risk of getting or passing on these infections by:

  • Not using drugs. Avoiding drugs reduces the chance of engaging in risky behaviors, like unsafe sex and sharing drug-use equipment.
  • Getting tested. Anyone who injects drugs should get tested for HIV and hepatitis. A person who is infected may look and feel fine for years and may not even be aware of the infection, which is why testing is needed to help prevent the spread of disease.
  • Getting treatment for HBV and HCV and to manage HIV. Doctors can prescribe medicines to help treat HBV and HCV infection and to manage HIV. Anyone with HBV, HCV, or HIV should seek medical care.
  • Getting treatment for a drug problem. Seeking treatment for problematic drug use can help people reduce drug use, related conditions, and other risk behaviors. Drug treatment programs also offer good information about HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and related diseases. They also provide counseling and testing services and offer referrals for medical treatment.
  • Get vaccinated. There is a vaccine that can be given to prevent HBV infection. See the current HBV recommendations.

Where can I get more information?

Drug Facts

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