Substance Use

Substance use disorder or “addiction” affects a person’s ability to control their use of a legal or illegal drugs, including things like alcohol, Valium or benzodiazepines, heroin and other opiates, ice or other methamphetamines, and tobacco. Drug addiction can start with experimentation, in social situations or for sexual pleasure, and can occur when drug-use becomes more frequent.  

The risk of addiction varies, depending on which substance is being used. Addiction can have a big impact on a person’s life, as they begin to lose control, while prioritising drug use over other aspects of their life. As a person’s drug use increases, it can be increasingly difficult to go without the substance, and not having the drug may lead to intense cravings as well as make the person feel physically unwell.


Importance for PLHIV50+

Substance abuse is common, with alcohol and tobacco being the most commonly abused substances in Australia. Approximately 5%, or 1 in 20 Australians has an addiction or substance use problem, and this risk is higher in people living with HIV. Substance abuse disorder is a defined as a common mental illness, and can be associated with or lead to depression and other mental health conditions.  

Signs that you or someone else may have a problem with alcohol or other drugs include:  

  • Needing more of the substance to get the same effect.  
  • Taking the substance to feel better, to forget problems or to relax 
  • Taking the drug affects other aspects of life, like work or socialising 
  • Prioritising drug use over bills, food, or usual medications 
  • Stealing or selling possessions to buy drugs 
  • Feeling like you can’t stop, intense cravings or feeling physically unwell without the drug 
  • Deteriorating mental or physical health because of drug taking 


How to seek help

If you or someone you know is experiencing problems with substance abuse, it is important to know that help and support are available. 

Talking with friends, peers, family or your healthcare provider early is the best chance at getting better. While there is no “one-size fits all” approach, there are various treatment options to help overcome addiction and remain drug-free. This may include a thorough assessment by a healthcare provider who has experience in substance abuse disorder, or it may involve counselling and education, detoxification, and medications to help with managing the cravings or withdrawal symptoms. Occasionally some people need extra help, which requires admission to hospital or another facility to assist.  

Self-help support groups or other support services can be helpful to prevent relapse.