Avoiding Drugs and Alcohol

Individuals diagnosed with HIV can expect to live nearly as long as those who are not infected with the virus, if they receive appropriate health care and lead a healthy lifestyle.

In fact, some HIV-positive individuals are more likely to die from alcohol use, COPD (lung changes from smoking) and drug overdoses than from HIV-related complications.

HIV-positive individuals should be aware that:

  • Using drugs, alcohol and smoking can affect long-term quality of life
  • Drug and alcohol use are major factors in the spread of HIV infection
  • People with HIV are more likely to smoke than healthy people
  • In people with HIV, smoking can make it more difficult to fight off serious infections

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Answers to Common Questions

What do drugs and alcohol have to do with HIV/AIDS?

Beside the fact that drug and alcohol use are a major factor in the spread of HIV infection, they may have unsafe interactions with antiretroviral treatment (ART). Also, they can affect your ability to take your cART as prescribed, which is crucial with fighting the virus.

I already have HIV/AIDS, so what if they put me at higher risk? Will using make me sicker?

If you have HIV and you shared equipment (such as needles) with another HIV+ person, there is a chance you may become superinfected with the virus, which may require different treatment. This would make treatment more difficult and you could develop resistance to medications, which could block the effectiveness of your treatment.

If you're taking anti-HIV medications, adherence is important for a healthier life. Injecting drugs is associated with nonadherence to the medications.

Alcohol can damage your liver, especially when you have HIV and Hepatitis C. Also, it can have serious side effects when combined with antiretroviral therapy.

How do I stop using?

Thinking about quitting is the first step. To achieve your goal of getting clean, you have to be ready. Make sure you're doing it for yourself, not for a significant other, parents or court order. Go to drug treatment and find a support group. Quitting drugs, alcohol and tobacco products is not an easy road, but if you're convinced this is what you want to do, you can do it.

What if I'm not ready to stop using?

If you don't feel ready to stop using, you could think in other terms, such as not sharing equipment (such as cookers, filters, tourniquets or rinse water). Also, using clean needles reduces the spread of HIV, preventing a superinfection in the case of a person already infected with HIV. 

UC San Diego Health also offers a harm-reduction approach to addiction recovery and treatment for those who are actively using.

See Getting Help from the Needle Exchange Program.

Will smoking make me sicker if I have HIV/AIDS?

Yes, smoking could make you sicker. It stops normal lung function in healthy people. If you're HIV+, smoking can make it more difficult to fight off serious infections. People with HIV are more likely to smoke than healthy people.

Are you ready to quit? How do I stop smoking?

Nicotine replacement therapy is available and works by weaning your body off nicotine, minimizing withdrawal symptoms and cravings that many people experience when they stop. Experts say that increasing your daily physical activity can help with reducing some withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety.

UC San Diego Health offers smoking cessation counseling for patients who want to break the habit .

Where can I get more information?

What about my drug/alcohol/smoking should I tell my doctor?

It's crucial that you're honest with your doctors about your health habits, diet, behaviors and addictions in order for them to help you stay healthy and provide you with best care available. The more your doctors know about you, the better advice they can give you. Don't be embarrassed, and trust your doctor. Remember, there's risk for drug interactions and dangerous side-effects.

What questions might I want to ask my doctor?

  • Why do you need to know my emotions?
  • How can I improve my emotional health?
  • What if I'm ready to quit smoking, but patches haven't helped me?
  • I'm ready to stop using. Where can I go?
  • What if I don't stop using?
  • What if I don't stop smoking?
  • How do smoking and drugs make me sicker?
  • Where can I find clean needles?

Appointments & Referrals