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The Effects of Drugs on Behavior: The Connection Between Drug Use and Risky Sexual Behavior

Substance abuse disorders can alter how a person thinks, feels and experiences the world. If you or a loved one suffer from substance abuse disorder, you could risk STD / HIV transmission. Evidence indicates that drug use may have a connection to high-risk sexual behavior.

The Impact of Drug Use on the Mind

The mind is the body’s most complex organ. It is central to all activity, function and emotion. Think of the brain as a complicated computer. The brain has billions of neurons organized into networks and circuits, with each neuron acting as a switch to control the flow of information. The circuits of the brain work together to keep the body functioning.

The neurons release neurotransmitters into the synapse between one neuron and the next cell to send messages. The neurotransmitter attaches to receptors like a key into the lock and changes the receiving cell.

Drug Use and Pleasure

Science does not clearly understand why people experience euphoria or pleasure under the influence of drugs. However, theories include the chemical surges signaling endorphins and other neurotransmitters. Your body naturally produces small amounts of natural opioids when you eat, socialize, play music or create art. Under the influence of drugs, the surge of neurotransmitters increases.

Feelings of pleasure reinforce an activity. For example, if high-risk sex feels good, you may increase your odds of STD transmission, but the brain is wired to increase the odds of pleasurable activity. Drugs produce such large surges of dopamine that the brain naturally seeks it out again.

Drug Use and the Brain

Drug use interferes with neurons and neurotransmitters. Many drugs activate neurons because their chemical structure is similar to natural neurotransmitters. The drug attaches to neurons and activities them. However, because the drugs are unnatural, they cause abnormal messages.

Drugs alter various vital parts of the brain, including:

  • The prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex controls your ability to make decisions, solve problems and plan. It also is responsible for your impulse control. It is the last part of the brain to form; teens are the most vulnerable.
  • The extended amygdala: The extended amygdala controls your irritability, anxiety and other stressful feelings. The circuit experiences sensitivity after drug use and may cause users to seek more drugs to alleviate their discomfort.
  • The basal ganglia: The basal ganglia are responsible for positive motivation. For instance, healthy activities like socializing, eating and sex are reinforced. Your basal ganglia also control the formation of routine and habit. Think of the basal ganglia as the reward circuit. A drug’s impact on the basal ganglia can cause you to risk HIV transmission.

Different drugs can disrupt other brain parts, including the brain stem. Your brain stem is responsible for your critical functions, like a heartbeat, sleep and breathing.

Drug Use and Cravings

The way the brain responds to drugs is a part of why people crave illicit substances intensely. For instance, when a person misuses drugs, the reward circuit produces fewer neurotransmitters and reduces the number of receptors that receive signals. In turn, the brain can no longer experience pleasure as naturally as before.

People who abuse drugs may lose motivation and feel flat or depressed without the drug. The feelings often lead to more drug-seeking behavior and a vicious cycle of requiring drugs to feel pleasure again.

The Behavioral Changes in Drug Users

If you or someone you love has an addiction, you have seen firsthand the way that it changes someone. People who struggle with addiction do not act like their sober selves. They may engage in more dangerous, high-risk behaviors than before, putting themselves at risk for STD transmission.

Impulse Control

Impulsive behavior refers to any behavior that you engage in that requires little thought, reflection and without any consideration for the consequences. Compulsive behavior can be split into various phases. First, you have the urge; next, you fail to resist the urge and instead feel a heightened sense of arousal. When you succumb to your impulses, you may feel relieved and temporarily happy. However, the happiness generally ends quickly because guilt takes over after you complete the behavior.

In some cases, addiction may develop because someone already has trouble with impulse control. They may have difficulty thinking of the initial consequences and once addicted to substances; it is a cycle of impulsivity that they cannot get out of. However, in other cases, the drug can override a person’s ability to think clearly about a decision or to care about the consequences.

High-Risk Behavior

Addiction is connected to various high-risk behaviors. When a person has an active addiction, the cravings often beat rational thought. People become willing to do anything for their next fix. For example, some users may take part in criminal activities to afford their substance of choice. Others may engage in high-risk sexual activity for the same purpose. HIV transmission becomes an afterthought, whereas the fix becomes priority. Additionally, the environment that may lead to initial drug use could already set the stage for high-risk behavior.

The Different Effects of Different Drugs

Every person reacts differently to different types of drugs. The impact of the drug depends on the strength of the substance, how the substance was made, the dose and the person in question’s body weight and tolerance. A person’s mental health can also have an impact on the effect of a drug. For example, if someone is in a happy mental state, the drug may increase their happiness. However, when someone is anxious or upset, the drug can exacerbate that state.

Different forms of drugs can also impact an individual’s reaction.

Impact of Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens distort entirely reality for the user. The person may see and hear things that are not there or see and hear everything through a distorted lens. Users can experience euphoria, paranoia, panic, gastric upset, jaw clenching and nausea. Some examples of hallucinogens include magic mushrooms, ketamine, PCP and LSD.

Impact of Stimulants

Stimulants are named as such because they stimulate the body’s central nervous system. They cause the messaging to and from the brain to speed up and leave the user more confident and alert. Users may experience a higher body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. Stimulants sometimes affect the sex drive, creating the right environment for risky sexual practices and STD transmission.

Additionally, stimulants can cause reduced appetite, sleeplessness and agitation. When taken in large amounts, stimulants can lead to paranoia, stomach cramps, panic attacks and seizures. Some examples of stimulants include MDMA, cocaine, nicotine, caffeine and amphetamines.

Impact of Depressants

A depressant slows the function of a person’s nervous system. Small doses of depressants may have a relaxing effect on the user. People feel less inhibited and calmer. However, with large amounts, people experience unconsciousness, vomiting and sometimes death.

A depressant slows a person’s coordination and concentration. People with depressants cannot react quickly to situations, so they should avoid heavy machinery and motor vehicles. Some forms of depressants include opiates, benzodiazepines, alcohol, GHB and cannabis.

STD / HIV Transmission and Drug Use

HIV transmission is sometimes associated with drug users. There are various reasons for it because HIV, in particular, can spread via drug use or sex. The following are illnesses that individuals with substance abuse disorder may have a higher chance of developing due to drug use and lifestyle.

Keep in mind that some illnesses can pass for both categories. You can develop the conditions through sexual contact, shared needles, or contact with another person’s blood or lesions.

Drug-Related Illnesses

Most drug-related illnesses have everything to do with exposure to blood. Users who inject substances tend to have a higher chance of developing these conditions.

HIV

HIV is a virus that spreads through the body’s immune system and attacks it. When left untreated, it can lead to the development of AIDs. While HIV cannot be cured, it can be controlled with medical care. HIV is a blood borne infection that can spread through blood, semen and vaginal fluids.

In the acute stage of HIV, many people have flu-like symptoms; as it turns chronic, people may have an asymptomatic infection. In severe stages of HIV, the immune system becomes badly damaged.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C refers to liver inflammation caused by the hepatitis C virus. Chronic and acute hepatitis can both occur with infection and people may have mild illnesses to lifelong severe diseases, including cancer and cirrhosis. It is a blood borne virus that is often associated with unsafe injections.

Additionally, unscreened blood transfusions and sexual practices with exposure to blood can lead to infection. There are antiviral medications that can cure most people who have a hepatitis C infection. Infection of hepatitis C can occur when sex exposes one partner to the other’s blood, resulting in hepatitis C also falling under STD transmission.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a virus spread through blood, body fluids and semen. It cannot be spread through coughing or sneezing, however. Sharing needles is one of the most common factors behind whether someone may develop HBV. If a person uses a needle contaminated with the virus, it quickly spreads to the next person. It can also be spread through sexual contact with a person with the virus. If a person injects illicit substances and engages in high-risk sex, it can cause an outbreak of HBV. The virus can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure.

Sepsis

Opiate users are more likely to develop sepsis as opposed to skin infections. People with substance abuse disorder do not always pay attention to the cleanliness of their needles. Dirty needles can be contaminated with various types of bacteria. When injected, it causes infection. Sepsis is the body’s response to an infection. During an active infection, the immune system is supposed to fight the invaders. However, in the early stages of sepsis, the system turns on itself.

Signs of severe sepsis include difficulty breathing, abnormal liver tests and changes in a patient’s mental state. Sepsis can lead to widespread organ failure and death.

Sex-Related Illnesses

Often, the lifestyle associated with drug abuse includes high-risk sexual activity. In addition to illnesses related to needle use, various conditions can arise due to unprotected sex, such as HIV transmission.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is caused by the chlamydia trachomatis bacteria. This bacteria spreads through anal, oral and vaginal sex. It is present within the vaginal fluid and semen of infected persons. Additionally, it can pass from one infected person to another through genital contact, regardless of intercourse. Pregnant women may also pass chlamydia to their unborn children. Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that you have to treat with antibiotics.

Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is an STD that spreads through sexual intercourse. Any sexually active person has a risk of gonorrhea. However, those with multiple partners or more high-risk behavior have a higher chance of developing the infection. Symptoms of gonorrhea include painful sensations while urinating, vaginal bleeding, discharge and soreness. Doctors can treat gonorrhea and cure it. However, some strains are drug-resistant and may require more challenging treatment options.

HPV

HPV or the human papillomavirus is the most common STI in the U.S. as of 2018; there were approximately 43 million infections. Most infections occur in people in their late teens or early 20s. HPV spreads through oral, vaginal and anal sex. It can also spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex. HPV does not always present symptoms and can spread quickly from an asymptomatic partner.

STD transmission, like HPV can lead to cervical cancer. While it can take years or decades to develop, it is a severe risk to those with HPV.

Syphilis

Syphilis is a type of bacterial infection spread through sexual contact. The first signs of the disease are painless sores on the genitals, mouth or rectum. The disease spreads via skin or mucous membrane contact with sores. One of the alarming details about syphilis is that it can remain inactive for decades before it becomes active again. However, in the early stages, penicillin can cure it.

Without treatment, syphilis wreaks havoc on the body. It can damage the brain, heart and other organs. Additionally, the disease can spread from mothers to their unborn children. There are various stages of the disease; in some cases, the stages may overlap and do not always occur in the same order.

Monkeypox

Monkeypox is not classified as an STD or an STI. You do not pass it via sexual contact. It is a rare disease in the same family as the variola virus, or the virus responsible for smallpox. Monkeypox is diagnosed by pimple or blister-like rashes that appear inside the mouth, on the face, hands, genitals and chest. Generally, monkeypox lasts for about two to four weeks and people may develop a rash before or after other symptoms.

Some monkeypox-related symptoms include fevers, swollen lymph nodes, exhaustion, chills and headaches. Monkeypox fits in the sexual-related category because you need close contact with another person to spread it. It can spread through direct contact with scabs, bodily fluids and infectious rashes. Many people catch monkeypox through intimate contact, such as kissing, sex or cuddling.

What Is the Link Between STD / HIV Transmission and Substance Abuse Disorder?

Studies conclude that substance abuse can lead to higher STD / HIV transmission. Drug use gives people a predisposition to these conditions. Young people are particularly vulnerable to STD infection and higher-risk behavior.

High-Risk Sexual Behavior

Drugs can hinder a person’s control of impulses, particularly pleasurable activities like sex. People have various means to hook up with partners, including online dating sites and apps. Additionally, when people are under the influence of illicit substances, they don’t use their best judgment. They are more likely to have sex with someone without taking proper precautions. They may have limited condom use or unsafe practice sex with multiple partners.

Poor Hygiene

Many people who use drugs forget to care for their hygiene. Their lives revolve around the drug and everything else becomes less important. In addition, access to clean needles is limited. Users may share needles or not receive medical care for their wounds or injection sites. The lack of hygiene can cause infection to spread through groups of people.

Open Sores

Many conditions can cause open sores. Additionally, drug use can also cause sores to develop. Not only do those who inject drugs develop sores, but so do those who use other methods. Some drugs, like methamphetamine, can cause someone to pick at his or her skin. If the blood or open sore contacts another person, it can spread a severe infection.

How Can People Likely To Face STD / HIV Transmission Be Tested?

Those afraid they may have been exposed to HIV or any STD should visit a clinic as soon as possible. There are rapid HIV self-tests available where patients can stick themselves and take an antigen/antibody test. Patients can also visit a clinic to have blood drawn for an antigen and antibody test. NAT or nucleic acid tests look at the virus in the blood. The healthcare provider tests blood from the vein and sends it to a lab for testing. The test shows how much virus is in a person’s blood.

Give Yourself a Healthy New Beginning Free From STD / HIV Transmission

To put high-risk sexual behavior and drug use behind you, Clean Recovery Centers is happy to help. We provide stabilization, treatment and medication management to those who need a place to recover. If you are at risk of STD / HIV transmission, contact us today to find out how we can change your life for the better.

Sources:

  • https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain
  • https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/hiv-transmission/ways-people-get-hiv.html
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6292241/
  • https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/31/4/920/376265
  • https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/factsheets/substance_use_fact_sheet-detailed.htm
  • https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/How-drugs-affect-your-body#different-drugs-different-effects
  • https://www.cdc.gov/pwid/opioid-use.html
  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/syphilis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351756
  • https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm

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