Alcohol and Drug Use

Content From: CDC’s HIV BasicsUpdated: May 15, 20173 min read


Alcohol and drug use can be harmful to your health and  get out of hand for some people. Modest use of alcohol can help your heart health in some circumstances, but it can also lead to long-term effects that are harmful and reduce your ability to fight off HIV. Different drugs have different effects on the body, and they can affect your judgement, mental health, and physical health differently. The use of illegal drugs presents multiple risks to the health of people living with HIV including harmful effects on the body and the risks associated with injection drug use, and risks associated with sexual transmission of HIV.

How Can Alcohol, Drug Use, and HIV Affect Your Health?

Alcohol and drug use, abuse, and dependence may damage your body and brain, and drug overdoses can cause death. This damage to your body and brain can negatively affect your health and well-being in many ways. These are just some examples.

  • Physical effects:
    • Drinking too much can damage your brain, liver, and immune system. Chronic drinkers with HIV may be at greater risk for disease progression than those who drink very little or not at all (read more).
    • Methamphetamines can lead to brain, liver, and kidney damage, impaired blood circulation, significant weight loss, and tooth decay.
    • Drugs like cocaine and heroin can seriously damage your respiratory and circulatory systems.
    • Methamphetamines and cocaine can negatively affect your immune system, making it easier for your body to get an infection.
    • Some substances interfere with HIV medicines that are part of an overall treatment plan.
  • Other effects:
    • The after-effects of a drug or alcohol “high” can create feelings of depression, exhaustion, pain, and/or irritability.
    • Getting high may cause you to forget to take your HIV medicines or forget to make and keep doctor and clinic appointments.
    • Using drugs can make it hard for you to maintain your house, job, relationships, and social supports—all of which are important for your well-being.
    • If you inject drugs, you may be at increased risk for transmitting or getting HIV. You may also be at risk for other infections that are transmitted by blood such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Learn more about reducing the risk from injecting drugs. Using drugs can make you more prone to risky practices, such as sharing needles or not using condoms. This increases the chance that you could transmit HIV or get a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that could make your infection worse.

How Can You Find Treatment or Support Programs?

Choosing to stop using drugs or alcohol is not easy, but it can be done. Quitting will improve your health, well-being, and relationships with others.

  • Different types of substance use require different types of treatment. Based on your level of dependence, you may need medical treatment and/or psychological therapy to help you quit. Talk with your health care provider to explore treatment options that are specific to your type of substance use.
  • Peer support and faith-based recovery groups may also help you manage substance use and dependence.

Support is available. Many organizations provide hotlines and guidance on substance abuse treatment options:

CDC offers more information on substance abuse and treatment.