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Substance Abuse Issues

Substance Use and Abuse

Your health and well-being can be affected by substance use and abuse, which are patterns of behavior involving a chemical substance that can have addictive tendencies or negative effects.

Substance use generally refers to infrequent or nonaddictive patterns of drug use. Substance abuse (sometimes referred to as “drug abuse”) typically means that a person is using drugs in a way that is harmful to personal health and well-being. This is usually related to psychological or physical addiction.

Substance abuse can refer to using both legal drugs (such as prescription pain medications) and illegal substances (like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine). If you use these substances, you run the risk of developing a tolerance to these drugs and eventually to a dependence on them. Long-term use of these substances can lead to damage to your body, including your brain. This damage can occur as a result of the substance itself, or from the things you do while using.

For more information, see the National Institute On Drug Abuse’s Drugs, Brain and Behavior–The Science of Addiction.

The Major Players

Some substances have addictive qualities and tend to be abused more than others. Below is a list of illegal substances that play a role in abuse and/or addiction. Please see the links below for Facts and Figures on each substance from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

What’s HIV got to do with it?

The idea that HIV is closely connected to substance abuse is not surprising to healthcare providers who have been working to care for people living with HIV for any length of time. But what many people don’t know is that substance abuse is significantly tied to both prevention AND treatment of HIV.

For people who are currently living with HIV, substance abuse negatively affects their health and well-being in a variety of ways, including:

  • Physical effects:
    • Drugs like cocaine and heroin can seriously affect your circulatory and respiratory systems, and overdoses can lead to death.
    • Methamphetamine (‘crystal meth’, ‘Tina’, ‘ice’, ‘crank’) can lead to tooth decay, significant weight loss, impaired blood circulation, liver damage, kidney damage, and damage to specific receptors in the brain.
    • Drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine have been known to affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to infection. Nicotine affects your circulation, making healing of tissues more difficult and wounds more prone to infection.
    • Some substances interfere with HIV medications and other medication that may be a part of the HIV plan of care.
  • Behavioral effects:
    • Recreational drugs can make you feel really good—but what goes up must come down. Coming down from a high from many substances can create feelings of exhaustion, pain, confusion, irritability, and/or depression.
    • Getting high can make it hard for you to remember to take your HIV meds.
    • Getting high can make it hard for you to remember to make or keep doctor appointments and clinic visits.
    • Using drugs can affect housing, social support networks, employment, relationships, etc.—all things that can be very important for someone living with HIV.
    • Substance abuse can cause new psychiatric issues and make previous conditions worse (including depression and schizophrenia).
    • Using drugs may impair your judgment about sexual risk behaviors—making you less likely to use safer-sex practices and increasing the risk that you could transmit HIV or get another sexually transmitted disease (STD) that could complicate your HIV infection.

For more information, see the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Drugs + HIV: Learn the Link, or SAMHSA’s Drugs, Alcohol, and HIV: A Consumer Guide.

Ready to find help? Here’s how!

If you are using, the choice to quit can be the most difficult and challenging choice you ever have to make. Substance use and abuse can have both physical and psychological roots, and you may need medical treatment and psychological therapy to help you to stop using drugs. It takes a willing individual, a strong support system, and a sound community program or partnership to be successful in stopping the patterns of substance abuse. Below are some helpful links to finding the help you need:

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I only use drugs on the weekend? Is it really that bad?

Recreational or occasional drug use can be just as dangerous as an addictive pattern of behavior. In particular, excessive alcohol or stimulant (meth) use can be damaging even on an intermittent basis. These behaviors can be associated with immune system damage, lack of medication or treatment adherence, infection, organ damage, and overdose. Some of these effects can be seen even if a person only uses them on the weekends or when out “partying.” Sometimes this behavior is more dangerous because it leads to a greater loss of control and more risky behavior.

For more information on the negative effects of substance abuse when living with HIV, please see the Department of Veterans Affairs’ HIV/AIDS: Drugs and Alcohol.

Last revised: 06/20/2011