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The Relationship Between HIV/AIDS and Drug Use

Drug use has long been linked to the spread of HIV/AIDS. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that injection drug use accounts for approximately 10% of new HIV infections globally. Therefore, helping addicted individuals find treatment is an important part of combating this destructive virus.

How HIV and AIDS Work

Although society and medicine have come a long way in understanding HIV and AIDS, there are still misconceptions. Here’s a rough outline of how they work, how they’re contracted, and what symptoms they cause.

What Is HIV?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus(es), which technically includes two known species of virus. HIV can be transmitted through bodily fluids like blood, semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids, and breastmilk. Eventually, damage caused by an HIV infection can lead to AIDS.

As a “retrovirus,” HIV is able to use RNA to insert a copy of its genetic information into a cell’s DNA. While other types of viruses just use the cell like a factory to make more copies of itself, a retrovirus changes the makeup of the cell. HIV infects immune cells, destroying them in the process and weakening the body’s defenses.

Symptoms of HIV can be vague, and infection may go unnoticed. Possible symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Sore throat
  • Lymph node swelling
  • Rashes
  • Fever/chills
  • Muscle aches

Testing is extremely important; as many as 15% of people 13 or older who have HIV don’t know they have it. Once diagnosed, treatment is absolutely critical. HIV infections usually develop into AIDS within about 10-15 years if left untreated.

Although it can be slowed through treatment, there is currently no vaccine or cure for HIV. Antiretroviral medications can help fight its progression and reduce it to “undetectable” status. At undetectable levels, the likelihood of infecting others is extremely low.

What Is AIDS?

AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is a disease that occurs after years of infection with HIV. As its name implies, AIDS is marked by a severely deficient immune system. Without functioning immunity, the body struggles to fight off even minor infections and diseases. Patients eventually succumb not to AIDS itself, but to other conditions the body could not protect against.

Examples of AIDS symptoms include:

  • Sudden/fast weight loss
  • Increased fatigue
  • Recurring or persistent fever
  • Sores or blotches (especially in the mouth, anal, or genital regions)

Doctors can usually confirm that HIV has developed into AIDS if they notice two key results in testing:

  • Critically low immune cell count (“CD4” cell count below 200)
  • Presence of AIDS-identifying opportunistic diseases/infections (pneumonia, tuberculosis, salmonella infection, certain fungal infections, etc.)

AIDS is an incurable, highly fatal disease. This is why preventing HIV transmission and slowing HIV progression through treatment are so important.

Certain Drugs Pose a Direct Risk of HIV Transmission

Depending on the type of substance and the method of use, addiction can put someone at greater risk of contracting HIV. Some drugs, like those that are injected into the bloodstream, pose direct transmission risks.

How Is HIV Transmitted Through Drug Use?

When a drug is injected into the bloodstream, the needle used is contaminated with blood. If that needle is then shared with someone else, any bloodborne pathogens on the needle may be transmitted to the other person. Sharing and reusing dirty needles is a major cause of drug-related HIV transmission.

Any other method of drug use that involves contact with infected body fluids could also, hypothetically, lead to direct transmission, but intravenous drug use is of primary concern.

Drugs That May Lead to Direct HIV Transmission

Any injectable drug that presents the possibility of sharing or reusing needles is an HIV risk. Examples of intravenous drugs that may lead to transmission include:

  • Heroin
  • Methamphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Prescription drugs (pain killers, stimulants, etc.)
  • PCP
  • Ketamine

Any drug that can be injected may be linked to HIV transmission via contamination. Of course, any method of drug use that puts users in contact with potentially infected bodily fluids can be a direct means of transmission.

Other Addiction-Related HIV/AIDS Risks

Even if you’re not using intravenous drugs or sharing needles, an addiction to drugs or alcohol may still increase your risk of contracting HIV. The following are just a few examples of how that can happen.

Risky Behavior

An addiction can cause even the most cautious, responsible person to take risks they would never have taken otherwise. Drugs and alcohol tend to lower inhibitions, which could lead to unsafe (unprotected) sex or other impulsive decisions. This puts them and others around them at risk.

The need to feed an addiction also creates further risks. Someone who is desperate to avoid withdrawal sickness may be more willing to share needles or exhibit risky sexual behaviors to get what they need.

The Addiction Always Comes First

An addicted person may want to put their loved ones and goals first, but drugs and alcohol will always overrule those desires. They may realize they’re increasing the risk of HIV, but they avoid testing because they’re afraid their addiction will be discovered. Even after an HIV diagnosis, buying drugs may take precedence over paying for medications.

Addiction Treatment and HIV/AIDS

If an addiction is putting you at greater risk of contracting HIV, professional treatment can get you into a safer place. If you are already HIV- or AIDS-positive, you can still get treatment. Whatever your status, getting help is a way to reduce the risk for yourself and others.

Help Is Available Regardless of HIV/AIDS Status

Preventing infection is always ideal, but you won’t be turned away from rehab if you already have HIV or AIDS. Your status may inform the way your treatment plan is designed, but it won’t change the quality of your treatment. You should inform the doctors if you have HIV/AIDS, but you do not have to disclose your status to your peers in rehab.

The emotional impact of an HIV or AIDS diagnosis can leave a person feeling depressed or even hopeless. It can be tempting to dive harder into addiction, but it’s more important than ever to reclaim your life from drugs and alcohol. It’s never too late, and rehab is an opportunity to make a difference. It’s also important to protect your physical health as much as possible.

Will I Be Able to Continue HIV/AIDS Treatment During Rehab?

If you have a legitimate medical need, rehab professionals will work with you to ensure that you get appropriate care. Doctors and program staff will manage and provide your antiretroviral medications as needed, and your rehab plan can be tailored to accommodate your treatment needs. All of these things can be done without disclosing your status to other clients.

Get Help at Adelante Recovery Center

At Adelante Recovery Center in Orange County, California, we offer personally tailored addiction treatment to people from all walks of life. No matter what kind of addiction you have, what issues you’re dealing with, or what your HIV status is, we can help you break your dependency and build a foundation for sobriety.

In addition to standard residential and outpatient rehab options, we offer dual-diagnosis treatment for those dealing with mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. We also offer specialized programs for students, seniors, and first responders, whose unique experiences are an important factor in addiction recovery.


  1. https://www.who.int/teams/global-hiv-hepatitis-and-stis-programmes/populations/people-who-inject-drugs
  2. https://www.webmd.com/hiv-aids/guide/hiv-aids-difference

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