Heroin can be taken in several different ways. While a lot of people smoke horse or snort it, for many smack addicts injecting is the preferred method. People who inject heroin feel the effects almost instantaneously, whereas other methods have a slightly delayed effect. All methods of heroin use carry with them chances of getting HIV. It is not only the method that gives heroin users chances of getting HIV, but also the activities they engage with whilst high.
HIV needle risk
Sharing needles is a common practice amongst heroin users, and is the primary reason why addicts contract the disease. Blood to blood contact is the most efficient way of spreading the disease, and inserting a needle into your blood supply that has already been used by someone else is incredibly dangerous. As well as getting HIV from needle sharing, heroin users can contract Hepatitis B and C. This virus attacks the liver, often leading to serious and fatal conditions.
Other ways of contracting HIV from heroin use
HIV can be transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. This makes sharing any kind of drug-taking paraphernalia risky. As well as a HIV needle risk, smoking or snorting heroin can put you in contact with the saliva of infected users. Even if you aren’t needle sharing, or injecting at all, if someone else you know does, it is easy to get their blood on you.
Because HIV can be transmitted through bodily fluids, this means there are chances of getting HIV through unprotected sexual intercourse. People on heroin often experience a feeling of heightened sexual prowess, and this can motivate them to engage in risky sexual behaviour. Hepatitis C can also be contracted sexually, although the chances of this are less likely than they are with HIV. Users high on heroin aren’t in the right state of mind to worry about protection, so are putting themselves in danger.
What is the HIV transmission risk?
A study in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 900 of the 10,000 intravenous drug users surveyed had HIV. Whilst this was a drop of around 50 per cent on a decade prior, it is still a large amount of people capable of passing on the infection to others, with a high transmission risk. More worrying is that half of those users were completely unaware that they were infected with HIV until informed by researchers. Around 1.5million Americans have HIV, and one in five are unaware that they are infected (1).
IV drugs users surveyed had high rates of needle sharing, having unprotected sex, and having multiple sexual partners: all behaviours that increase the chances of getting HIV. Injecting drug users account for more than a third of AIDS cases reported each year, while around 20,000 users are infected with HIV annually.
HIV risk calculator
If you are worried about your risk of HIV, there are tools available to help give you an indication of how likely you are to become infected. These HIV risk calculators will take into account several behaviours and practices in order to determine your HIV transmission risk. While all drug-taking behaviour will put you at risk of contracting HIV, these behaviours are likely to have a big influence on the HIV risk calculator.
Injecting in the same place as other users
Sharing a tube when smoking heroin – saliva can transmit HIV too.
Not wearing protection during sex – 80% of heterosexual HIV infections are women who have had sex with a male drug user (2).
By Photo Credit: C. Goldsmith Content Providers: CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons