Infections and Drug Use: HIV/AIDS

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus attacks the immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight off other infections and disease.

HIV does not always progress to AIDS. But that's a risk if untreated.

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is the final stage of HIV infection, at which point the immune system is very weakened and the body is unable to fight off disease. Not all who are infected with HIV will progress to AIDS, however this is a risk if HIV is untreated.

HIV is spread when infected blood or sexual fluids (but not saliva) enter the bloodstream of someone who is not infected.

For those using drugs, HIV is mainly spread through contaminated needles or injection paraphernalia including syringes, cookers, and cottons used to prepare or inject drugs. Unsafe sexual practices also put people who use drugs at risk—being under the influence of drugs may lead individuals to engage in risky sex due to impaired judgmenta need for money, or other factors.

In the US in 2016 there were 39,782 new diagnoses of HIV, of which approximately 1 in 10 (3,425) were due to injection drug use.

While there is no vaccine or cure for HIV/AIDS, there are many effective treatments available for HIV which can help those infected live a normal life and manage the disease.

If you're at risk, get tested regularly.

Those at risk should get tested for HIV regularly so that, if positive, they can begin treatment quickly. This is especially important because most people who are infected with HIV will not show symptoms, and may not even know they are infected.

For those at risk for HIV, take these steps to protect against infection:

  • Use sterile needles and injection paraphernalia every time. These can often be obtained from a local syringe services program or harm reduction center.
  • Avoid injecting drugs. The HIV virus cannot survive well outside the human body. This means that drug use behaviors that don’t involve injection, such as smoking or snorting, are a much lower risk for HIV.
  • Use condoms every time during vaginal and anal sex. Condoms protect against HIV. However, it is important to note that HIV is present in pre-cum as well as cum, and therefore condoms should be put on before having sex.
  • Use lubricant during sex. Lubricant reduces friction during sex, and therefore reduces the development of “microtears”, or small tears in the skin of the genitals that can enable HIV to enter the body.
  • Take PrEP daily. PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a once daily medication that can be taken by those at high risk of HIV infection to prevent them from getting the infection.
  • Take PEP after emergency situations. PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, is a series of HIV medications taken to prevent infection after an individual has potentially been exposed to the virus. PEP should be taken within 72 hours of the possible exposure.
  • Get tested for HIV regularly. Knowing your HIV status, and your partner/partners’ status can help you take steps to protect yourself and those you care about.
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