Viral Infections (HIV, Hepatitis) and Drug Use

Revised November 2017

What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV-infected T cellImage by NIAID/CC BY HIV-infected T cell

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). AIDS is the final stage of an HIV infection when the body can no longer fight off diseases. Most people say “HIV/AIDS” when talking about either the virus (HIV) or the disease it causes (AIDS).

HIV destroys certain cells in the immune system—called CD4+ cells. The immune system helps the body fight diseases, but HIV weakens the body’s ability to heal itself. AIDS is diagnosed when a person has one or more of these infections and a low number of CD4+ cells in their body.

HIV/AIDS has been a global epidemic for more than 30 years. People born after 1980 have never known a world without it. More than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV.1 It is thought that 1 in 7 peope are unaware they have the condition. 

A person can have HIV for many years, and the virus may or may not progress to the disease of AIDS. This is why a person may appear healthy or uninfected when, in fact, they carry the HIV virus and can pass it on to others through sexual activity or needle sharing. A medical test is the only way to know if a person has HIV. 

Treatment

There are medicines that help prevent the spread of HIV. However, there is no vaccine for the virus, and there is no cure. 

Two teens sitting close together on a couch; one of whom is girl drinking from cup, and other boy watching.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV in the United States: At A Glance. Atlanta, GA,  September 2017. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is a painful swelling and irritation of the liver. Viruses cause most cases of hepatitis, leading to uncomfortable infections. Hepatitis infections can range from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a more serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. The most common causes of viral hepatitis are the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). Each has its own way of spreading to other people and its own treatment.

Hepatitis can lead to:

  • scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) which causes the liver to not work properly
  • liver cancer, especially from long term (chronic) hepatitis B and hepatitis C

How Hepatitis is Spread

HBV and HCV can spread through:

  • sharing needles and other drug equipment
  • risky sexual behaviors linked to drug use, though this is not common with hepatitis C

Treatment for Hepatitis

Treatment is recommended for almost all infected people. 

  • For HBV: There are medicines to reduce the risk of liver cancer for persons currently infected.
  • For HCV: There are new medicines with few side-effects that can cure a HCV infection in most people. 

Read more about the different types of viral hepatitis on NIDA's website. 

How many teens have HIV?

Among people ages 13 to 19, more than 1,700 were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2015.2 However, this does not include the number of youth that were already diagnosed or those that have not (yet) been diagnosed. In fact, CDC estimates 51 percent of youth ages 13 to 24 in the United States do not know they are infected with HIV.3

For the latest HIV/AIDS statistics by age, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV in the United States: At A Glance. Atlanta, GA, October 2017. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV Among Youth. Atlanta, GA, April 2017. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/group/age/youth/cdc-hiv-youth.pdf.

What can be done to prevent the spread of viral infections?

People can reduce the risk of getting or passing on a viral infection by:

  • Not using drugs. Avoiding drugs reduces the chance of engaging in risky behaviors, like unsafe sex and sharing drug-use equipment.
  • Getting tested. Anyone who uses drugs should get tested for HIV and hepatitis. A person who is infected may look and feel fine for years and may not even be aware of the infection, which is why testing is needed to help prevent the spread of disease.
  • Getting treatment. When people enter drug treatment, they stop or reduce their drug use and related risk behaviors, including drug use with needles and unsafe sex. Drug treatment programs also offer good information about HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and related diseases. They also provide counseling and testing services, and offer referrals for medical and social services.

In addition, NIDA's research has shown that tailoring prevention intervention programs for specific populations can reduce HIV risk behaviors. 

Finally, there is a vaccine that can be given to prevent HBV infection. Please refere to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for current recommendations.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent HCV infection.

What should I do if someone I know needs help?

Talk With Someone

If you, or a friend, are in crisis and need to speak with someone now: 

  • Call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (they don't just talk about suicide—they cover a lot of issues and will help put you in touch with someone close by)

If you need information on drug treatment and where you can find it, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can help.

For more information on how to help a friend or loved one, visit our Have a Drug Problem, Need Help? page.

Get Tested for HIV

If you need to get tested for HIV, you can ask your health care provider for a test. You can also find a testing site near you by:

If you need to get tested for hepatitis B or C, you can ask your health care provider for a test or you can find a testing site near you by:

Where can I get more information?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

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This publication is available for your use and may be reproduced in its entirety without permission from NIDA. Citation of the source is appreciated, using the following language: Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.