HIV and Smoking: Why You Should Kick the Habit

Smoking is damaging to anybody, but the risks to HIV positive people are even bigger. As well as making several conditions more likely, it can also exacerbate the risks some HIV medications carry. Quitting smoking as soon as possible should be a priority for anybody suffering from HIV.

Smoking kills over 400,000 Americans every year. While nobody is exempt from the risks of smoking, some people are more susceptible to the dangers than others. If you’re a smoker living with HIV, not only does your condition make you more susceptible to infections and many health conditions, it makes the risks of smoking even more serious. Unfortunately, HIV sufferers are actually more likely to smoke than most people, so increasing awareness of the risks is essential.

HIV and Smoking: How Many HIV Sufferers Smoke?

According to a study published in 2015, HIV sufferers are over twice as likely to smoke as the general population. Researchers used data from a nationwide HIV monitoring system and compared sufferer’s smoking rates with those of adults from the National Health Interview Survey. The results showed that around 42 % of the HIV sufferers were current smokers, in comparison to 20.6 % of adults in the general population. Other evidence suggests that the smoking rate among HIV sufferers could be even higher than this.

The 2015 study also looked at the rates of quitting in HIV patients in comparison to the general population, and found that they’re also less likely to quit. While almost 52 % of all adults who’d ever smoked have quit, for HIV patients the figure was only 32 %.

All of this underlines a key point: smoking is a big problem in society, but it’s an especially big problem among people with HIV.

How Smoking Impacts HIV Sufferers

The link between HIV and smoking isn’t limited to the higher smoking rates and lower quitting rates. Although smoking doesn’t actively make HIV itself any worse, it does make you more likely to get HIV-related infections like bacterial pneumonia, hairy leukoplakia, thrush and pneumocystis pneumonia.

As well as these conditions, smoking-related illnesses like lung cancer, heart disease and COPD are more likely in people who have HIV than people who don’t, even if they don’t smoke. This means that the added risk from smoking is more of a concern than it already is for non HIV sufferers. For heart conditions, another issue is that some HIV medications can increase the amount of fats in your blood, which increases your risk even further in comparison to other smokers.

The short version is that people with HIV are at a greater risk of developing smoking-related illnesses and suffering negative health consequences as a result of their smoking.

Why Do People With HIV Smoke?

The greater risks of smoking for people with HIV and the vulnerability brought on by their condition makes it superficially confusing that they would smoke at such high rates. However, there are many reasons for the link between HIV and smoking, and these are primarily psychological factors.

The study referenced earlier looked at factors associated with smoking among people with HIV, which included being incarcerated in the past year, being homeless in the past year, living below the poverty level, binge drinking and non-injecting drug use. These associations hit on the key reasons HIV sufferers smoke more than non-sufferers.

Firstly, living below the poverty level, homelessness and incarceration are very challenging things to go through, bringing with them a lot of stress and often fear, anxiety and many other negative emotions. Suffering from a serious condition like HIV only makes this worse. While smoking isn’t a solution to these issues – far from it – smoking does provide a temporary sense of relief from stress and negative emotions. It doesn’t address the underlying causes, though, so the stress and negative emotions come back within a couple of hours of the last cigarette.

Secondly, binge drinking and drug use are signs that the individuals do use unhealthy coping strategies for psychological issues. As with smoking, these may provide a shallow, temporary relief from unpleasant emotions, but they don’t do anything to address the underlying causes of those emotions. Learning healthier coping mechanisms is the only way to deal with these emotions without substances.

Breaking the Link Between HIV and Smoking

Researchers looking at the issue of HIV and smoking have rightfully recognized it as a serious risk for people with HIV. To tackle this, they’ve suggested that stop smoking services should be made a core component of ordinary care for HIV sufferers. Changes like this and increasing awareness of the risks of smoking with HIV are the big, society-level solutions to the problem.

For the individual, using an approved stop-smoking medication, a nicotine replacement therapy product or alternative nicotine products like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes is the best approach to stopping smoking. It doesn’t matter which one you use; the important thing is that you take steps to stop or drastically reduce the amount you smoke.

It isn’t easy to quit smoking, but for HIV sufferers in particular, overcoming the habit is essential.