How Drug Use Can Lead to Infectious Diseases

Contracting infectious diseases can directly result from drug use, as well as from the risky behaviors that a person may engage in when under the influence.

In this article, you will learn more about the common infectious diseases that can result from drug misuse, other long-term effects of drug misuse, and how to get treatment for a substance use disorder.

Common Diseases From Illegal Drug Use

heroin overdose

Misusing drugs can lead to acquiring several diseases, some of which can be difficult to manage and potentially even fatal. Many can even lead to life-altering outcomes, such as HIV, hepatitis, skin or heart infections, and STIs.1 For example, you may unknowingly share needles with someone who has HIV or hepatitis C and subsequently contract the disease.2 Bacterial infections from injecting drugs are also very common and these infections can cause inflammation of the heart, also known such as infective endocarditis.1 It is also possible that if you are under the influence and not fully aware of the risks of your actions, you run the risk of potentially engaging in unprotected sex and contracting an STI.2

Blood-borne Diseases From Injecting Drugs

If you use drugs intravenously, meaning via injection, you may contract various blood-borne diseases, such as:

  • Bacterial and fungal infections, which  are a common complication in people who inject drugs. These infections can affect the skin and can travel inside the body via the bloodstream. The opioid epidemic has led to increased infectious‐related morbidity and mortality, including infective endocarditis, an infection of the heart muscle and valves.3,4
  • HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, which lowers the number of T cells (or cells that help fight off infections) in the body. With lower T cell counts, a person can become sick more easily. In some cases, if the disease progresses, HIV can become AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, where the body loses the ability to fight off infections, putting the individual at extreme risk for fatality. There is no vaccine or cure for HIV, which affects around 1.1 million people in the U.S.2
  • Hepatitis C is a contagious liver infection that results in chronic liver disease for 60%–70% of those infected with it. Hepatitis C is also known as HCV, and it is treated with antiviral drugs which can often cure the disease.5
  • Hepatitis B, also known as HBV, can be acquired through needle sharing or other contact with infected blood. While HBV is usually less serious than HCV, it can cause chronic liver disease.5

It’s estimated that people who inject drugs account for 12% of new HIV and 60% of new hepatitis C infections in the U.S.6

Diseases From Risky Sexual Behavior

When people are under the influence of drugs, their inhibitions are lowered. They may not have clear judgment about the consequences of their behaviors, which can result in high-risk activity, such as unprotected sex.2,7 In addition to acquiring HIV or HCV through sexual contact, there are other STIs that a person can contract through sexual activity, which include:

  • Herpes, which is caused by a virus and causes painful genital blisters and sores. Herpes is not curable but can be managed by taking certain medications.8
  • HPV, or human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts and cancer. In some cases, HPV goes away with no further issues. However, there can be complications from HPV, such as the development of cancer.9
  • Chlamydia, a common, treatable infection that impacts both men and woman but can cause infertility in women if left untreated. Chlamydia can also increase the risk of an ectopic pregnancy.10
  • Gonorrhea, which is a treatable infection that can lead to infertility in women and occasionally in men. Gonorrhea can also lead to other complications if left untreated, such as pelvic inflammatory disease in women as well as infertility.11
  • Syphilis, which is a curable bacterial infection. If untreated, syphilis can cause serious complications in some people, including blindness, dementia, and death.12 Gay or bisexual men who have HIV are at an especially high risk of contracting syphilis.12

Other Common Infections From Drug Use

When people misuse alcohol or use drugs, the immune system may become compromised in general, making it easier for them to get sick.13 Some infections that occur in people who misuse drugs include:

  • Staphylococcus infections, which can result from IV drug use. These are a real concern for the health of people who use drugs. Oftentimes, this bacteria is referred to as staph. Certain strains of staph, particularly methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), can cause serious issues, such as skin infections, soft tissue infections, heart inflammation and infection (i.e., endocarditis), and arthritis.14
  • Pneumonia. This infection occurs at a much higher rate among people who engage in IV drug use than those who do not.15 Having a weakened immune system from drug misuse, as well as changes in the lungs caused by drug misuse, are thought to lead to these higher rates of pneumonia.15
  • Cryptococcus neoformans, which is a common infection among people who have HIV and who also misuse methamphetamine. This specific fungal infection infects the lungs and the brain.16
  • Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that often impacts the lungs but can also affect the brain, spine, and kidneys.17 Studies show that those who misuse drugs, especially via injection, have increased overall rates of tuberculosis in several countries.18

How to Prevent Diseases Caused by Drug Use

The only sure way to avoid diseases related to drug use is to abstain from drug use. However, if people engage in IV drug use, there are ways to implement and practice harm reduction. Some strategies for preventing diseases from drug use include:19

  • Using clean needles.
  • Sterilizing syringes.
  • Getting tested and vaccinated for disease when possible.
  • Using medications that are designed to help prevent acquiring HIV.

Treating Diseases Caused by Drug Use

If you go to drug rehab, you are likely to be tested to see if you have any of the diseases discussed in prior sections. Certain types of infections, many types of STIs, and some strains of hepatitis can be quickly treated and cause little or no further complications.5,10,11,12 However, some people who get hepatitis C can develop chronic liver disease,5 and HIV requires lifelong management.1

Getting into treatment for drug use can help you get the treatment you need for many types of infections. Certainly, with some diseases, early detection is critical.

Long-Term Effects of Disease Caused by Drug Use

If you have contracted a disease because of drug misuse, you might experience long-term effects from the disease. For example, more than half of the individuals who contract hepatitis C will develop chronic infections.20 In some cases, chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver diseases, liver cancer, and even death.20 Many people with this infection often require a liver transplant.20

People with HIV take an HIV treatment regimen of medications every day to stay healthy. Substance use can sometimes make it hard to focus and stick to a daily treatment regimen; however, skipping HIV medicines allows HIV to multiply and damage the immune system.21

If you contract syphilis and it is left untreated, you can suffer various types of physical damage.12 While treating syphilis can stop its progression, treatment cannot always reverse the damage already done to a person’s body.12 If you get HPV, it can lead to cervical cancer in some cases.9 In addition, various types of untreated STIs can lead to infertility, particularly in women, as well as other complications.10,11

If you contract infective endocarditis, it is important to understand that although surgery can minimize damage and boost early survival, long-term life expectancy for infective endocarditis among people who use drugs is low, due to ongoing infection risk that researchers attribute to continuing to inject drugs. Stopping drug use can help increase the likelihood of long-term survival.3,4

Get Help for Drug Addiction Today

People sitting next to each other during DBT therapy session

If you need help with a substance use disorder, it’s not too late to start the rehab admissions process today. Call and speak to one of our admissions navigators and learn more about the rehab programs we offer at Desert Hope.

Our admissions staff can help you figure out what type of treatment program might be best for your needs. Whether you are seeking inpatient rehab in Las Vegas, or you are trying to learn more about helping a family member with an addiction, our admissions team can answer your questions about what to expect in inpatient rehab and also help you learn more about the levels of addiction treatment that are offered at Desert Hope, including outpatient treatment. In addition, you can learn how to pay for rehab and what options are there for you.

If you are wondering about using insurance to pay for rehab or other rehab payment options, call Desert Hope today. Our staff will help you verify your insurance benefits and possible coverage for treatment or explore other ways to pay for rehab.

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