Addiction and HIV/AIDS
Addiction comes with many risks including the breakdown of relationships, legal issues and loss of employment, but one of the more serious consequences is the possibility of contracting HIV.
Unfortunately, addiction and blood-borne infections such as HIV or hepatitis often go hand-in-hand due to the dangerous behaviours associated with being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
Therefore it is important to be aware of the risk factors that can lead up to contracting this virus and understand the steps that should be taken if you believe you have been exposed to HIV as a result of your addiction.
What is HIV/AIDS?
While it can be easy to confuse the two, HIV and AIDS are not the same diagnosis. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, a contagious illness that can eventually develop into a condition called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome – commonly known as AIDS.
If in doubt, remember that HIV is a virus while AIDS is a condition.
HIV attacks the immune system and prevents it from functioning effectively. When the immune system becomes seriously damaged, AIDS can potentially develop.
As a result, even a small cold or flu bug can become highly dangerous and develop into a more serious illness such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. 
There is no cure for HIV or AIDS, and the body is unable to clear the virus even with medical assistance.
However, this condition is no longer a death sentence and many people with HIV and AIDS go on to live long, happy lives by regularly taking medication that keeps the virus under control and the immune system functioning well.
It is not possible to transmit AIDS between humans, as it is not a virus. AIDS is the result of the HIV virus and can only develop if an individual has previously contracted HIV from an infected person.
How is HIV/AIDS contracted?
While people living with HIV can be highly contagious, particularly during the initial stage of infection, there are only a few specific ways that you can contract this virus.
HIV is commonly transmitted through sharing injecting equipment such as syringes as well as having unprotected sex.
You can only contract HIV from someone who is HIV-positive, and it is usually impossible to know whether someone has the virus just from looking at them.
If a patient receives a blood transfusion from someone who is HIV-positive, they are at high risk of contracting the virus. Similarly, an HIV-positive mother has an increased chance of giving birth to an HIV-positive baby during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
There are a number of myths surrounding HIV transmission, with some people believing that the virus can be contracted through actions such as hugging, sneezing and sharing toilet sets.
It’s important to remember that HIV can only be transmitted via blood, semen, breastmilk and vaginal or anal secretions and is not an airborne virus, nor can it survive in water.
What are the symptoms of HIV/AIDS?
It can be difficult to recognise the symptoms of HIV as they are often similar to that of the flu and generally pass fairly quickly.
The virus can remain undetected in the body for up to 15 years if the affected individual does not get tested, and can eventually progress into AIDS which has its own set of symptoms.
HIV infection has been classified into three distinct stages, and symptoms can vary depending on which stage the individual is in. 
Once an individual has been infected with HIV they will often begin to experience flu-like symptoms as the virus enters their system and the body attempts to fight it off. Much like the flu, these symptoms can last for a couple of days or up to a few weeks and is known as a seroconversion illness.
However, some people experience no symptoms during this stage and may be unaware that they have been infected.
Common symptoms of HIV include:
- Excessive perspiration (particularly at night)
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Rash all over the body
- Aching muscles
- Mouth ulcers
- Sore throat
- Tiredness and fatigue
During the initial stage of infection, the individual may not test positive for HIV, as it can take a few weeks for the body to produce the required antibodies.
However, this person is already extremely contagious and has the potential to spread the virus to others through blood, semen, breastmilk and vaginal or anal secretions.
Once the seroconversion illness has passed, the individual may have no further symptoms. The HIV virus will continue to multiply within the body at low levels throughout this stage, which is commonly known as chronic HIV infection.
If HIV has not been diagnosed, the individual may be unaware that they have contracted the virus and could be unknowingly transmitting it to others.
Many people remain at the chronic HIV infection stage for up to 10-15 years without treatment, however, some people move past this stage faster than others.
If the individual remains undiagnosed for a long period of time, the body’s immune system will become weakened by the virus over the years.
As a result, they are highly likely to develop AIDS, the late stage of HIV infection.
Common symptoms of AIDS include:
- Rapid and noticeable weight loss
- Memory loss
- Extreme fatigue
- Diarrhoea for over a week
- Frequent fevers
- Dry cough
- Night sweats
- Sores on the anus or genitals
- Extremely swollen lymph glands in the neck, armpit or groin
- White spots on the tongue, throat or mouth
There is no way to accurately predict whether you have contracted HIV or AIDS without being tested. If you are concerned that you have been exposed to this virus and/or have been displaying symptoms, speak to your doctor or a local sexual health clinic who will be able to arrange a test for you.
What is the relationship between addiction and HIV/AIDS?
Sadly, there is a strong link between HIV/AIDS and addiction. People dealing with a substance use disorder are at greater risk of contracting the virus, particularly if they are addicted to drugs that are ingested intravenously such as heroin or methamphetamines.
Sharing needles and other injecting equipment increases the risk of transmitting HIV, a common practice between heroin and methamphetamine users.
Having unprotected sex is another risk factor, with people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs more likely to take chances with their sexual health and potentially engage in unsafe behaviour. 
While addiction can be a factor in the transmission of HIV, it can also affect the progression of the disease and even make the symptoms of the virus more severe.
If the individual has a substance use disorder and frequently ingests large doses of alcohol or other substances, they could be worsening their symptoms by wearing their immune system further. This can cause the illness to advance at a more rapid rate, potentially leading to the onset of AIDS earlier than anticipated.
How is HIV/AIDS treated?
While there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, the virus can be managed by regularly taking prescribed medication known as antiretroviral therapy that reduces the levels of HIV in the body.
If the individual adheres to their medication schedule, they can generally expect to live for the same amount of time as a person who does not have HIV. 
It is recommended that you begin treatment as soon as you receive a diagnosis of HIV, no matter how long you believe you have had the virus for. Even if you are not currently displaying any symptoms, the HIV virus can attack your immune system with no outward signs for a number of years and it is crucial that it is brought under control as soon as possible.
The amount of HIV in the blood is known as the viral load, and medication can help to keep the viral load very low. This means that it is virtually undetectable and is less likely to be passed on to other people.
An HIV-positive mother, for example, may have only a 1% chance of passing the virus on to her baby if she takes her medication regularly and keeps the condition under control. 
HIV can multiply very quickly, meaning that it is essential that you take your medication regularly and refrain from missing a dose. You must never self-diagnose with HIV, and only take medication that is prescribed to you by a registered medical practitioner.
Common side effects of HIV medication include:
- Frequent headaches
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
There are a number of support groups available for people living with HIV and AIDS, and it is recommended that you join one local to you if you have been diagnosed with this condition.
It can be reassuring and cathartic to share your story with other people who are able to relate to your experiences, and as a result, you will begin to feel more connected and less isolated from the world.