HIV & Substance Use Disorder: Treatment Can Help

Man understanding how his genetics can affect alcoholism

There is a correlation between substance use disorders and HIV [1]. Research shows that this correlation may be due to increased risk-taking behavior while intoxicated or the transmission of bodily fluids through intravenous drugs [1].

Given the potential for serious medical complications, it is important to decrease the transmission rate of HIV. Treating substance use disorders may decrease the amount of new HIV cases [1].

Unless there are social and structural changes to ensure people have equal access to HIV prevention programs and HIV treatment, the epidemic will likely continue [1]. However, some interventions can be implemented to reduce the transmission rate in people with substance use disorders. Here are a couple of ways:

Syringe Service Programs and HIV

Syringe service programs (SSPs) can prevent the transmission of HIV [1]. SSPs can provide a variety of services, but they primarily exist to provide sterile needles and a safe way to dispose of used needles.

This can help prevent the spread of blood-borne illnesses like HIV. Research also shows that people who utilize SSPs are more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t have access to these services [1].

Some SSPs may also provide referrals to mental health and substance abuse treatment. This can allow someone to inject safely while also having access to mental health support during the addiction recovery process.

This not only benefits the individual seeking treatment, but also society as a whole. A society where more people are mentally and physically well can only be beneficial.

Opioid Medication

Hispanic Woman Sitting on Bench Near SeaOpioid medication can help someone recover from opioid dependence or overdose [2]. Opioids are a category of drugs. Some opioids are prescribed, while others are not. An example of a non-prescription opioid is heroin or fentanyl.

Heroin is often injected through needles. Access to medication that treats opioid abuse is an evidenced-based strategy to prevent the spread of HIV [1].

Research shows that this approach can decrease daily injections by 54% [1]. This is significant because millions of Americans are addicted to opioids [2]. If millions of people were able to quit using these drugs, then the risk of transmitting HIV could drop dramatically.

Medication is important because of the physical impacts of withdrawal and also the potential for overdose. Withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult to stop using opioids.

Certain medications can help individuals to recover from the physical impact of opioid use. Non-prescription opioids, such as heroin, are often injected into someone’s bloodstream.

Given the potential of HIV transmission through non-sterile needles, treating opioid addiction can decrease the HIV rate. Treating opioid addiction can decrease the frequency of risk-taking behaviors that can lead to HIV infection.

Medication for opioid treatment and syringe service programs can reduce the rate of HIV transmission. In addition to broader social and structural healthcare changes, these evidence-based interventions can help prevent the spread of HIV.


[1] Localized HIV Modeling Group (2020). Ending the hiv epidemic in the usa: An economic modelling study in six cities. The Lancet,(7), 491-503. S2352-3018(20)30033-3

[2] U.S. Food & Drug Administration (2020, July 23). Opioid pain relievers or medicines to treat opioid use disorder: MedWatch safety alert- fda recommends health care professionals discuss naloxone with all patients when prescribing.

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on September 28, 2020
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 28, 2020
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.