Substance abuse and HIV/AIDS are closely linked. The many health, emotional, family, social and legal problems associated with both of these challenging health conditions amplify and compound each other.
HIV infection is often a consequence of the behaviors associated with or resulting from substance abuse. For example:
- Injection drug use plays a role in 20% of new HIV diagnoses among women.
- Women who use cocaine or other non-injection drugs are at higher risk for engaging in sex in exchange for drugs, which in turn places them at greater risk for HIV infection.
- People who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors that place them at risk for HIV.
- HIV infection has been linked to drug abuse in 66% of AIDS cases among women.
- Injection drug use is at the root of many new HIV infections among Latinos; for example, it is the number one cause of HIV infection among Puerto Ricans.
Substance abusing individuals are more likely to be exposed to the HIV virus:
- Through contact with a contaminated needle when using intravenous drugs, or
- Through engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors such as unprotected sex.
When both HIV/AIDS and substance abuse are present, substance abuse can often take precedence over and interfere with other priorities; for example, HIV+ substance abusers may be less likely to access healthcare and/or to properly follow their HIV medication regimens.
A diagnosis of HIV or AIDS can precipitate an increase in or relapse into substance abuse, but it can also lead to positive behavioral change. For example, as is the case with many substance abusers, some women begin using drugs in an effort to self-medicate – that is, to soothe and relieve difficult, painful feelings and to deal with stressful situations. When they find out that they are HIV+, they may feel compelled to turn to drugs once again to help themselves cope with this diagnosis and its troubling implications. For others, however, learning that they are HIV+ can also serve as a catalyst for healthy and positive change.