It is well-known that addiction has a negative effect on overall health and wellbeing. Substance abuse in general takes a toll on mental and physical health, but the specific consequences sometimes depend upon the drug. For instance, cocaine use is associated with malnutrition, asthma, pneumonia, and severe paranoia. On the other hand, heroin use is linked to infection of the heart valves, liver and kidney problems, and the development of mental health conditions like depression. While some substances come with specific health consequences, what several drugs have in common is that they can increase the risk of developing a sexually-transmitted infection (STI). Learn the details below.
The Prevalence of Addiction and STI
Unfortunately, a large body of research shows that individuals with substance use disorders (the clinical term for an addiction) are at elevated risk of contracting an STI. In fact, research from the United Kingdom has found that up to 53% of injection drug users are infected with the hepatitis C virus.
An earlier study of patients in treatment for substance use disorders in the state of Texas also found the prevalence of STIs to be high in this population. Around 62% had evidence of at least one STI; 44.4% tested positive for herpes simplex virus, and 35.1% were positive for hepatitis C. Furthermore, 29.5% had hepatitis B, and 2.7% had antibodies for HIV. HIV risk was higher among those of African American race and those who smoked crack cocaine.
Causes of STI Among Drug Users
So, why is there such a strong link between drug addiction and STIs? There seem to be several reasons for this association. First, injecting drugs and sharing needles has been shown to increase the risk of both hepatitis B and hepatitis C. HIV and other infections can also spread through the use of soiled needles. Drug users who share needles with those who are infected with an STI are at risk of contracting the STI themselves.
Beyond sharing of needles, there is a strong link between substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors, which makes drug users more vulnerable to STIs. Risky sexual behavior includes initiating sexual activity at a young age, having unprotected sex, using condoms inconsistently, having sex for profit, having sex while under the influence of substances, and engaging in sex with multiple partners.
Certain substances may present unique risks for risky sexual behavior. For instance, researchers have found that crack cocaine use is associated with the highest prevalence of STIs, because it increases sex drive and leads to risky behaviors, like trading sex for crack. In addition, methamphetamine use is linked to feelings of euphoria and increased sex drive, both of which can cause risky sexual behavior, leading to an increased risk of HIV in methamphetamine users.
It is not just illegal drugs that are associated with STIs in substance users, as even alcohol can elevate a person’s risk of contracting an STI. Alcohol has been linked to risky sexual behaviors like having multiple sexual partners and engaging in unprotected sex. There is also evidence that alcohol abuse can disrupt immune system activity, further elevating STI risk.
In summary, substance use can lead to the spread of STIs through shared needles. It can also lead people to engage in risky behaviors like unprotected sex, which increases the risk of contracting an STI. The negative health effects of substance abuse can also include reduced immune system functioning, which makes it more likely that a person will develop an STI.
Reducing the Risk of STI
It is well-documented that people who live with addictions are more likely to develop STIs, making it important to take steps to reduce risks among this population. One harm reduction measure that has received attention in recent years is the use of needle exchange programs, which allow drug users to access clean needles. According to a CDC report, these programs have been found to reduce transmission of both HIV and HCV.
Harm reduction programs like needle exchanges can also link individuals with addictions to healthcare professionals, who can provide tests for STIs, education on STI prevention, and access to condoms. In addition, needle exchange programs aim to link patients to addiction treatment services, because STI risk is lowest when people receive treatment and stop engaging in drug use and the risky sexual behavior that goes along with it.
The Bottom Line on Addiction and STI Risk
While harm reduction approaches can reduce some of the risks of contracting an STI, the best outcomes occur among those who stop using drugs. Entering recovery and achieving sobriety allows the body to heal from the negative effects of drugs, thereby improving overall health and wellbeing.
Ultimately, entering a treatment program is the best way to reduce the risks that come along with substance abuse. In treatment, you receive support from a team of addiction professionals, who can provide counseling and case management and link you to services, such as healthcare and job training programs, so you have support in all the areas of life that have been negatively impacted by addiction.
If you’re seeking convenient and affordable addiction care, irecoveryusa.com provides comprehensive treatment in a 100% online format. You can login to our telehealth platform and participate in treatment from the comfort of home. Visit our webpage today to learn more or get started.