Diseases Transmitted through Drugs, Part I: HIV
Of all of the potential effects that using drugs can have on the human body, one of the most eternal and damaging is the possibility of contracting a disease such as HIV or AIDS. Not only can the disease be spread by sharing contaminated needles, it can also be spread when you engage in risky behaviors as a result of drug use.
In fact, drug use is a leading cause of AIDS cases and AIDS-related deaths in the United States. Estimates about the number of HIV/AIDS cases that are directly related to IV drug use range from 20 percent to more than 50 percent, but the fact is that IV drug use is just as much of a risk factor as sexual behavior. In New York alone, more than 34,000 people with the virus are heterosexual men who used IV drugs. The statistics for women are even more startling; nearly 61 percent of women who have HIV or AIDS contracted it through either using injected drugs or from having sex with a partner who used injected drugs.
Perhaps because these statistics are so frightening, there are a lot of misconceptions about how disease is spread via needles and the relationship between drugs and HIV/AIDS. However, in order to stay safe and healthy, you should understand how disease is spread – it could save your life.
How HIV/AIDS is Spread Via Drug Use
First of all, just because you use intravenous (IV) drugs, you are not guaranteed to get HIV or AIDS. The disease is not spread by the drugs themselves, but by sharing contaminated needles or engaging in sexual activity with an infected partner.
When you use a needle to inject drugs, the needle enters the vein and the plunger is pulled back. When that happens, blood enters the plunger portion of the needle; unless the needle is sterilized, the blood, and any blood-borne pathogens, remains there. However, the needle can be contaminated in other ways as well. If it comes in contact with blood or pathogens on a surface, for example, it can be contaminated and spread disease.
When the needle is re-used, those pathogens, including the virus that causes AIDS, can enter the bloodstream of the second user. It only takes one encounter with a contaminated needle to cause disease, making it especially important for all needles to be both sterile and clean before use.
Contaminated needles are not the only way that drug use can increase the chance of contracting a fatal disease. It’s a fact that drug use reduces inhibitions and often increases sexual drive – meaning that users can engage in risky sexual behavior while high. In their intoxicated state, users may fail to take precautions for safe sex, such as using condoms or have sex with strangers, strangers with unknown sexual histories. These types of behavior increase the chances of infection by a substantial amount, making drugs and sex a potentially deadly mixture.
How to Protect Yourself
Obviously, the best way to protect yourself from contracting serious disease via drug use is to avoid drug use altogether, but if that’s not an option at the moment, you can protect yourself in other ways.
- Always use clean needles. In most places, you can actually buy sterile syringes at the pharmacy; some cities have implemented needle exchange programs that allow you to return your used needles in exchange for clean devices. In fact, studies have indicated that cities that have implemented needle exchange programs have seen a decrease in new HIV cases and no marked increase in drug use.
- Avoid sharing needles. If you must re-use or share needles, take care to sterilize the needle and plunger with bleach, rubbing alcohol or hard alcohol before re-using.
- Inject your own drugs whenever possible. If you shoot your own drugs, you can be assured that the necessary precautions have been taken. If you allow someone else to shoot your drugs for you, monitor the preparation and injection to be sure that the syringe does not come in contact with blood or other potentially contaminated substances.
- Dispose of your needles properly. Bring them to a needle exchange program
- Practice safe sex. Use condoms, get tested for infectious diseases regularly and know the sexual history and status of any new sexual partners.
Of course, again, the best way to avoid contracting a deadly disease via drug use is to avoid using drugs altogether. If you have a drug problem, seek help from a qualified medical or rehabilitation professional and develop a plan for getting clean and sober. Not only will you limit the physical effects from the drugs themselves, but you could potentially save yourself from the ravages of a lifelong and fatal condition.