Why Are Heroin Users at Risk for Contracting AIDS?

Man Injecting Heroin
Sharing Needles Is Dangerous. © Getty Images

Question: Why Are Heroin Users at Risk for Contracting HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis?

Answer: The use of the drug heroin, by itself, does not increase the risk of contracting any disease or virus. It is the activities and behaviors surrounding the use of heroin that increases the risk of being exposed to HIV, viral hepatitis and other infections.

Using and sharing syringes and other injection paraphernalia and unprotected sexual contact with others who are infected is the reason that heroin users are at special risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C.

Risky Sexual Behavior

Even heroin users who snort or smoke are at greater risk for contracting infections because, in general, people under the influence of drugs tend to engage in risky sexual behaviors that can expose them.

But, injection drug users are by far the highest-risk group for acquiring hepatitis C (HVC) infection. Of all the new hepatitis C patients in 2010, 53% were injection drug users.

Additionally, an estimated 20% of all injection drug users in 2010 were infected with the hepatitis B infection, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Other Health Challenges

Heroin users can also have co-occurring conditions that can affect one another and creating health challenges. These can include hepatitis and other diseases, mental illnesses, social dysfunction and stigma.

According to the NIDA, treatment plans for heroin abusers should be comprehensive and designed to address all of these co-occurring issues to reduce drug use and drug-related risk behaviors, which in turn, can reduce the exposure to infectious diseases.

Risk Increase for Heroin Addicts

The two major threats that heroin use poses is the risk of overdose and the risk of addiction. Heroin can be a powerful addiction, causing people to do things they normally would never consider doing otherwise, like sharing dirty needles or having risky sex.

Therefore the risk of contracting HIV infection or other infections is much greater for a full-blown heroin addict than it would be for a casual user.

But, that is the big risk with heroin. Casual users generally do not remain casual users for very long.

Back to: Heroin FAQ


National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Heroin." Research Report Series Updated January 2014

The Partnership at DrugFree.org. "Heroin." Drug Guide. Accessed March 2014.

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