Alcohol and Drug Abuse Spells Trouble for HIV Patients

Binge drinking can lead to risky behaviors

Man Injecting Drugs
One Risk for Contracting HIV. © Getty Images

With 31 percent of all HIV cases among men and 57 percent among women attributed to injection drug use, it is obvious that shooting illegal drugs increases the risk of contracting the AIDS virus. Drinking alcohol can also contribute to the spread and progression of the disease.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, non-injection drug use can also lead to contracting the HIV virus, because drug users may trade sex for drugs or money or engage in behaviors under the influence that put them at risk.

Binge Drinking Risky

The same is true for people who drink to excess. People who are intoxicated lose their inhibitions and have their judgment impaired and can easily find themselves involved in behavior that would put them at risk of contracting HIV.

National Institute on Drug Abuse research shows that most young people are not concerned about becoming infected with HIV, but they face a very real danger when they engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex with multiple partners.

Alcohol Increases HIV Susceptibility

Risky behavior is not the only way drinking alcohol can increase the risk of becoming infected with HIV. A study by Gregory J. Bagby at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center found that alcohol consumption may increase host susceptibility to HIV infection.

Bagby's students, who conducted a study with rhesus monkeys infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), found that in the early stages of infection, monkeys who were given alcohol to drink had 64 times the amount of virus in their blood than the control monkeys. Bagby concluded that the alcohol increased infectivity of cells or increased the number of susceptible cells.

Virus Progresses Faster

For people who have already been infected with HIV, drinking alcohol can also accelerate their HIV disease progression, according to a study by Jeffrey H. Samet at Boston University. The reason for this is both HIV and alcohol suppress the body's immune system.

Samet's research found that HIV patients who were receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), and were currently drinking, have greater HIV progression than those who do not drink.

They found that HIV patients who drank moderately or at at-risk levels had higher HIV RNA levels and lower CD4 cell counts, compared with those who did not drink.

Drinking Affects Medication Adherence

Patients with HIV who drink, especially those who drink heavily, or less likely to adhere to their prescribed medication schedule. Both the Samet study and research at the Center for Research on Health Care at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that nearly half of their patients who drank heavily reported taking medication off schedule.

The researchers said many of the heavy drinkers simply would forget to take their medications. This is potentially a big problem for healthcare providers due to the fact that alcohol dependence in those with HIV run at rates twice as high as the general population.

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