Is Sexually Risky Behavior Common in People Affected by Opioid Addiction?

Is Sexually Risky Behavior Common in People Affected by Opioid Addiction?

Posted on April 22nd, 2014
Posted in Drug Addiction

Sexually risky behavior is a term used to describe sexual practices that increase risks for exposure to infectious diseases and/or increase chances of transmitting an infectious disease to someone else. Current evidence indicates that people affected by an addiction to opioid drugs or medications participate in risky sexual practices with some frequency. In a study published in January/February 2014 in the American Journal on Addictions, researchers from seven U.S. institutions investigated just how frequently opioid addicts take part in specific types of sexually risky behavior. They also investigated the underlying factors that contribute to the odds of an opioid addict being involved in risky sexual practices.

The Basics

Sexual practices that can increase your risks for developing or transmitting an infectious disease include having vaginal intercourse without a condom, having anal intercourse without a condom, making direct oral contact with a person’s genitals, having non-monogamous sex with multiple partners over any given span of time and having sex with multiple monogamous partners over any given span of time. Factors known to contribute to the odds that a person will participate in risky sex include abusing alcohol or having an alcohol addiction (i.e. alcoholism) and abusing drugs or having a drug addiction.

Serious infections associated with sexually risky behavior include the well-known sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea, as well as genital herpes, the potentially cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), known for its essential role in setting the stage for potentially lethal acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). People who engage in IV drug use are noted for their increased risks for both infectious disease exposure and participation in risky sexual practices.

Opioid Addiction

Opioid addiction can occur in anyone who repeatedly abuses an opioid drug like heroin or an opioid medication such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine or morphine. According to figures compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, roughly 669,000 American adults and teenagers use some form of heroin at least once a year. Figures from the same federal agency indicate that opioid medications are by far the most commonly abused prescription medications throughout the U.S. Many heroin addicts are also IV drug users; however, users may also snort or smoke the drug. People addicted to prescription opioids may swallow these medications in pill or tablet form or crush them and consume them nasally or through IV injection.

Frequency of Sexually Risky Behavior

In the study published in the American Journal on Addictions, researchers from Harvard Medical School, Duke University and five other institutions used a multi-site project involving 653 opioid addicts to assess the connection between opioid addiction and the chances of participating in sexually risky behavior. These individuals mostly relied on prescription medications as their source of opioid substances. All of the participants completed a questionnaire called the Risk Behavior Survey as part of a broader examination of their overall health status.

After completing their analysis of the information gathered from the study participants, the researchers came to several conclusions regarding these individuals’ baseline sexual practices. All told, slightly fewer than three-quarters of the participants engaged in some sort of sexual activity in the 30 days prior to the beginning of the study. The vast majority of these individuals (97.3 percent) were involved in heterosexual activity. Over three-quarters (76.5 percent) of the sexually active study participants had unprotected vaginal or anal sex at least once during the period under consideration. In addition, over 1 in 10 of the participants (11.3 percent) had sex with two or more partners. When they examined the underlying factors associated with risky sexual behavior, the researchers concluded that opioid addicts previously affected by other forms of addiction have increased chances of having sex without a condom. They also concluded that opioid addicts with a current history of cocaine intake have increased chances of having sex with two or more partners.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in the American Journal on Addictions note that the percentage of people in their project who engaged in sex with multiple partners was unusually low compared to the rate of this sexually risky behavior found in people who participate in other forms of illegal or illicit drug intake. At the study’s outset, the authors were especially concerned about the HIV transmission risks among opioid addicts involved in risky sexual practices. Based on their findings, they concluded that treatment programs must thoroughly examine prescription opioid addicts’ substance use histories in order to keep these risks as low as possible.

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