HIV and Substance Use

HIV and Substance Use

Substance use disorders, which are problematic patterns of using alcohol or another substance, such as crack cocaine, methamphetamine (“meth”), amyl nitrite (“poppers”), prescription opioids, and heroin, are closely associated with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Learn about your HIV risk and how to lower it.

Injection drug use (IDU) can be a direct route of HIV transmission if people share needles, syringes, or other injection materials that are contaminated with HIV. However, drinking alcohol and ingesting, smoking, or inhaling drugs are also associated with increased risk for HIV. These substances alter judgment, which can lead to risky sexual behaviors (e.g., having sex without a condom, having multiple partners) that can make people more likely to get and transmit HIV.

In people living with HIV, substance use can hasten disease progression, affect adherence to antiretroviral therapy (HIV medicine), and worsen the overall consequences of HIV.

Commonly Used Substances and HIV Risk

  • Alcohol. Excessive alcohol consumption, notably binge drinking, can be an important risk factor for HIV because it is linked to risky sexual behaviors and, among people living with HIV, can hurt treatment outcomes.
  • Opioids. Opioids, a class of drugs that reduce pain, include both prescription drugs and heroin. They are associated with HIV risk behaviors such as needle sharing when infected and risky sex, and have been linked to a recent HIV outbreak.
  • Methamphetamine. “Meth” is linked to risky sexual behavior that places people at greater HIV risk. It can be injected, which also increases HIV risk if people share needles and other injection equipment.
  • Crack cocaine. Crack cocaine is a stimulant that can create a cycle in which people quickly exhaust their resources and turn to other ways to get the drug, including trading sex for drugs or money, which increases HIV risk.
  • Inhalants. Use of amyl nitrite (“poppers”) has long been linked to risky sexual behaviors, illegal drug use, and sexually transmitted diseases among gay and bisexual men.