Viral Infections (HIV, Hepatitis) and Drug Use

Revised July 2019

What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV-infected T cell Image 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 people have 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 people 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 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 is no cure for HIV. But, with proper care, HIV can be managed. Learn the link

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV in the United States and Dependent Areas. Atlanta, GA,  January 2019. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

What is hepatitis?

The liver is protected by the ribs. The liver is the largest internal organ of the body and is protected by the lower right ribs.

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

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

How many teens have HIV or Hepatitis?

Among people ages 13 to 19, more than 8,200 were diagnosed with HIV in 2017.2 However, this does not include the number of youth that have not (yet) been diagnosed. At the end of 2016, the government estimated that 50,900 youth had HIV in the United States; but only 56 percent knew they had it.3 See the latest HIV/AIDS statistics by age.

Many people infected with viral hepatitis don’t have any symptoms and so don’t know they have the infection. It is estimated 3.5 million people are living with hepatitis C and 850,000 people are living with hepatitis B, the two most common forms of the virus. See the latest hepatitis statistics

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV Surveillance Report. Atlanta, GA, October 2019. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/basics/ataglance.html.

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV Among Youth. Atlanta, GA, April 2010. 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?

There is currently no vaccine to prevent HCV infection or HIV/AIDS, but people can reduce the risk of getting or passing on these infections 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 injects 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 for HBV and HCV and to manage HIV. Doctors can prescribe medicines to help treat HBV and HCV infection and to manage HIV. Anyone with HBV, HCV, or HIV should seek medical care.
  • Getting treatment for a drug problem. Seeking treatment for problematic drug use can help people reduce drug use, related conditions, and other risk behaviors. 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 treatment.
  • Get vaccinated. There is a vaccine that can be given to prevent HBV infection. See the current HBV recommendations.

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 want to help a friend, you can:

If a friend is using drugs, you might have to step away from the friendship for a while. It is important to protect your own mental health and not put yourself in situations where drugs are being used.

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?

NIDA Resources:

Other Government Resources:

Blog Posts

Chat Day Transcripts

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