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To your health!

Published: 01 June 2010

Liz Highleyman investigates the research to date on alcohol and HIV.

Most people can drink alcohol with few or no ill effects, but if used unwisely it can be a major cause of health and social problems, ranging from liver cirrhosis to motor vehicle accidents. In fact, alcohol causes more deaths in the UK - more than 9000 in 2008 - than any other drug except tobacco.

There is little evidence that light or occasional drinking is a major concern for most people with HIV. But alcohol has been linked to increased risk of HIV transmission, and it can contribute to poor adherence to antiretroviral therapy.

Who drinks?

By country, the UK has the eighth-highest alcohol consumption in the world1: men drink about 15 units per week on average, whilst women drink ten units.2 A unit is defined as 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol.

That’s less than you might think: half a small (175ml) glass of wine, a third of a pint of beer (at 5 or 6% alcohol, as many lagers typically are now), or a single pub measure of spirits.The NHS recommends that men should not exceed three to four units per day on a regular basis and women should not exceed two to three units per day on a regular basis. That’s, respectively, about a pint of beer and a medium glass of wine a day – not what a lot of people think of as excessive.

Heavy alcohol use and binge drinking, or consuming a large amount at one time, are common. A recent study in Chester, Liverpool and Manchester found that one in seven men and one in 25 women said they intended to consume more than 40 units (equivalent to about twelve pints of beer) during their evening out.3

Several UK and US studies indicate that HIV-positive people are more likely to drink heavily, and to be classified as having an alcohol problem. Looked at from the other direction, people with problematic alcohol use (such as clients of rehabilitation programmes) are more likely to have HIV. Rates of alcohol use are high amongst several groups at particular risk of HIV, including young people, injecting drug users, gay men and African immigrants.

It is hard to verify whether gay men tend to drink more or less than heterosexual men as most large surveys have not asked about sexual orientation, but one UK survey found that 85% of gay men drank alcohol during the past year and 11% were concerned about their drinking.4 A 2001 survey of gay and bisexual men in four large US cities produced strikingly similar results: 85% used alcohol and 8% reported heavy or frequent use.5

A recent survey, spearheaded by the Black Health Agency, of 40, mostly heterosexual, HIV-positive African men and women living in the north of England found that about one-third drank alcohol more than four times a day, with some men consuming 10 to 15 cans of beer in an evening.6 Depression, a desire to forget about issues like being HIV-positive or lack of legal immigration status, financial issues and loneliness were cited as key reasons why people drank.

Alcohol and HIV transmission

Alcohol use can lead to a higher risk of HIV transmission. Research looking at both gay men and heterosexual men and women has shown that people who drink more tend to have more sexual partners, on average, and are less likely to use condoms. That doesn’t mean that alcohol causes you to have sex. It may make you less careful as well as less choosy, though. This may particularly apply to women and, in some circumstances, gay men; alcohol-impaired sexual performance may be less of an issue (and more of a cause of vulnerability, because while many think drunk men are best avoided, men may regard drunk women as targets).

How much you drink at one sitting appears to be a bigger risk factor than frequency of drinking. One US study found that HIV-negative gay and bisexual men who reported heavy alcohol use during the past six months or binge drinking right before or during sex were more likely to engage in unprotected anal intercourse with an HIV-positive partner or with a partner whose HIV status was unknown to them.7

Another US study found that women who reported binge drinking were twice as likely as other women to have multiple sexual partners, three times more likely to report having anal sex and five times more likely to be diagnosed with gonorrhoea.8

Alcohol is linked to risky sexual behaviour worldwide.9 What's more, drinking and sex - especially commercial sex - often take place in the same venues. Alcohol increases the likelihood of sexual violence and non-consensual sex and, for women, drinking can increase vulnerability to sexual victimisation.

The Black Health Agency survey suggested that drinking is associated with risky sexual behaviour amongst HIV-positive Africans, a particular concern since more than half had not disclosed their status to their regular partner.

"Alcohol and passion may not present the most favourable ground for clear thinking, better condom use and sexual equality in power decisions regarding sex," understates Gertrude Anyango-Wafula, the BHA's co-ordinator for HIV and sexual health services.

According to Sigma Research, most gay men said they drink alcohol to relax, to be more sociable, to boost their confidence, and to escape temporarily stress and worries. Others said drinking helped them overcome their inhibitions and made them more sexually adventurous. HIV-positive men also said alcohol helped them deal with feelings of isolation and concerns about disclosing their status.

Alcohol may make cells more susceptible to HIV infection…but it is not clear whether alcohol directly raises viral load, lowers CD4 cell counts or speeds up HIV disease progression, since laboratory and animal studies have produced mixed findings.

People may simply forget to practise safer sex when drinking, but more complex psychological processes are probably involved. People who are under the influence may give more weight to their immediate desires and feelings and less to negative future consequences - so-called ‘alcohol myopia’.10An alternative explanation is that some people have what have been called ‘type T’ (for thrill-seeking) personalities that predispose them to seek sensation and take chances, which can include both risky substance use and risky sex.

Seth Kalichman, from the University of Connecticut, and his co-workers found that sensation-seeking predicts HIV risk behaviour and alcohol use in studies conducted amongst both gay men in the US11 and heterosexual men and women in South Africa.12 "Men are more likely to drink and engage in higher risk behaviour whereas women's risks are often associated with their male sex partners' drinking," they concluded.

Health consequences

Alcohol affects every organ and system in the body from the brain, to the digestive system, to the skin and bones.

Effects on the liver

The liver, which filters and processes toxic chemicals in the body, is the organ most heavily affected by alcohol. In the majority of people the liver is a remarkably resilient organ that deals with an awful lot of alcohol during a human lifetime. However, approximately one-third of heavy alcohol users develop alcoholic hepatitis after about ten years on average, and about 15% go on to develop cirrhosis (a build-up of scar tissue that severely impairs liver function).13,14 A recent study in Southampton found that most patients hospitalised with cirrhosis drank on a daily basis, often starting at a young age.15 People with hepatitis B or C develop alcohol-related liver disease sooner.

Chronic hepatitis B or C, and especially HIV and hepatitis co-infection, can cause the same outcomes, and alcohol is especially harmful for people with viral hepatitis. An estimated 10% of people with HIV in the UK are co-infected with hepatitis B or C, which are associated with faster liver disease progression.

Not only does alcohol accelerate liver damage, it also reduces response to interferon treatment for hepatitis C.16

The good news is that the liver is a resilient organ that can repair itself. While the damage due to late-stage cirrhosis is likely to be permanent, stopping or cutting back on drinking before this point can allow the liver to recover.

Effects on the brain

There is a widespread belief that alcohol kills brain cells, but alcohol's specific effects on the brain are actually caused by altering how nerve cells communicate. Brain function typically returns to normal after a bout of drinking, but chronic heavy alcohol use can lead to permanent memory loss due to deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamin), absorption of which is impaired by alcohol. Even moderate drinking may impair short-term memory and heavier alcohol use can cause longer periods of memory loss (blackouts).

Some studies suggest that alcohol increases the risk of neurocognitive impairment in people with HIV, though the effects of alcohol are less apparent in people on antiretroviral treatment.

One study looking at memory deficits found that HIV-negative alcoholics and HIV-positive people who did not abuse alcohol generally performed at normal levels, but HIV-positive alcoholics showed an impaired memory for events.17 Another found that HIV-positive people with a history of alcohol abuse continued to have significantly worse verbal scores and reaction times, suggesting that heavy drinking may have silent residual effects predisposing people to HIV-related cognitive impairment.18

Other effects

Alcohol can also affect the digestive system, increasing the risk of stomach problems (including cancer), ulcers and pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Alcohol is linked to metabolic problems, already a concern for people with HIV. Chronic heavy drinkers may be overweight yet malnourished because alcohol contains empty calories and suppresses appetite. Alcohol can alter blood sugar levels, whilst pancreas damage may decrease insulin production. Heavy drinkers are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer, and are more like to die early from all causes combined.

A study of nearly 300 HIV-positive people with a history of alcohol problems found that moderate and heavy drinkers were about twice as likely as current abstainers to report having lipodystrophy (changes in body fat distribution), though the difference did not reach statistical significance.19

Researchers in the USA looked at drinking and heart disease in nearly 5000 men in the Veterans Aging Cohort Study.20 Amongst HIV-positive - but not HIV-negative - men, ‘hazardous’ drinking (more than 14 drinks per week) and ‘binge’ drinking (six or more drinks at a time) were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared with infrequent or moderate drinking, even after adjusting for traditional risk factors.

You may also have read that moderate drinking (one or two units a day) can have beneficial effects. Some studies suggest that alcohol can protect against heart disease, but this research has not looked at people with HIV. Eating healthily and exercising also reduce the risk of heart disease.

Alcohol and HIV

Light or moderate drinking does not appear to be harmful for most people with HIV unless they have other medical conditions such as hepatitis. But there is some evidence that heavy use may contribute to HIV disease progression.

Alcohol suppresses the activity of some defensive immune cells, which may explain why chronic heavy drinkers get more infections such as pneumonia. At the same time, alcohol promotes overall immune activation and inflammation - factors suspected of playing a role in non-AIDS-defining conditions such as cardiovascular disease amongst people with HIV.

Alcohol may make cells more susceptible to HIV infection, and increased immune activation and higher inflammatory cytokine (chemical messenger) levels can trigger HIV replication. But it is not clear whether alcohol directly raises viral load, lowers CD4 cell counts or speeds up HIV disease progression, since laboratory and animal studies have produced mixed findings.

Two studies involving monkeys found that the monkeys given alcohol developed viral loads that were 64 to 85 times higher in early infection in the blood and, in the first study, in the brain.21, 22 A later follow-up found that monkeys given alcohol at levels equivalent to binge-drinking progressed to AIDS more rapidly, in an average time of 374 days compared with 900 days for the non-alcohol group.23

Turning to humans, most studies that have reported less robust viral load suppression or CD4 cell recovery amongst alcohol users have not adequately controlled for adherence, illegal drug use or other confounding factors.

There are some studies which have, though. Researchers looking at 1433 HIV-positive people seen at an urban clinic found that heavy alcohol use was associated with less viral load suppression after accounting for illegal drug use and poorer adherence.24

Similarly, amongst 1691 participants in the US Women's Interagency HIV Study, both heavy alcohol use and crack cocaine independently predicted disease progression while on treatment, even after taking adherence differences into account.25

A team in Boston found that amongst 595 HIV-positive people from two cohorts followed for up to seven years, heavy alcohol use was associated with a lower CD4 cell count only amongst untreated individuals – and there were no notable differences in CD4 count or viral load amongst people on antiretroviral therapy. This study suggests that adherence is not the only reason alcohol has an effect on disease progression. Untreated heavy drinkers had an average CD4 count of about 50 cells/mm3 less than teetotallers. CD4 cell percentages were similar, suggesting that alcohol had an effect not only on CD4 T-cells but on lymphocytes overall.

A recent study of more than 200 participants in Miami, HIV-positive people who drank two or more ‘standard drinks’ per day (that’s just one-and-a-quarter pints of UK pub-strength lager) were nearly three times more likely to see their CD4 cell count fall below 200 cells/mm3 than teetotalers, and drinkers not on ARVs had more than a sevenfold risk.26 The researchers concluded that alcohol may have direct effect on CD4 count, while its effect on viral load was due reduced adherence.

These findings imply that heavy drinkers might need to start antiretroviral therapy sooner after infection because they lose CD4 cells faster. But the researchers emphasised that the effect of alcohol was modest and was not apparent for people on treatment, perhaps because the large benefit of therapy overshadows the smaller detrimental effect of alcohol.

Alcohol, HIV treatment and adherence

Research shows that people with alcohol problems are less likely to get tested for HIV and slower to seek care after testing positive, but it is difficult to tease out the influence of alcohol versus co-existing factors like illegal drug use, poverty and mental illness.

Alcohol has not been shown to interact in any major way with antiretroviral medications. But heavy drinking - and liver damage caused by chronic heavy use - can potentially interfere with enzymes in the liver that process certain drugs, including protease inhibitors. Heavy drinkers and people with liver damage are also more susceptible to drug-related liver toxicity.

Drinking quantity, more than frequency of drinking, is associated with non-adherence. Christian Hendershot

Alcohol can react badly with some medications used to treat opportunistic infections (for example, rifampicin and metronidazole). It also can interact dangerously with drugs for non-HIV-related conditions; using alcohol with sedatives or illegal narcotics can cause slowed breathing and heart rate and even cause coma or death. Paracetamol (acetaminophen) can cause liver damage when combined with even a small amount of alcohol, as can the TB drug isoniazid. Consult your clinic or a pharmacist about whether it is safe to drink whenever you are prescribed new drugs.

HIV treatment can only work if it is taken properly. If a bout of drinking leads to vomiting, it may be necessary to repeat a dose (generally if vomiting occurs within an hour of taking it).

Considerable research shows that alcohol use, especially binge drinking, increases the likelihood of poor adherence to HIV treatment. One study found that binge drinkers and heavy drinkers more often reported poor adherence due to forgetting or running out of medications.27A meta-analysis of 40 studies looking at the link between alcohol and adherence found that people who drank alcohol were approximately 50% - and heavy drinkers 60% - less likely to be classified as adherent.28

"Drinking quantity, more than frequency of drinking, is associated with non-adherence," said lead author, Christian Hendershot.

This supports prior research showing that alcohol seems to have more effect on adherence in women. A 2007 study, for example, found that alcohol use predicted decreased adherence amongst women, but not men.29

HIV psychology researcher Seth Kalichman has uncovered another reason for reduced adherence.30

"It is common for people to believe that they should not mix their medications with alcohol," he told HTU. "We have found that some people will stop taking their medications if they are drinking because they believe they should not mix them."

Kalichman and others31, 32 have shown that tailored alcohol interventions for people with HIV can be effective, both in industrialised countries and in Africa. Successful programmes not only help people reduce problem drinking, but also decrease high-risk sex and drug use behaviours and improve treatment adherence and response.

The good news is that most research has not shown that moderate drinking worsens HIV disease progression or interferes with treatment response. But studies focused on heavy drinking amongst socially marginalised groups have not really looked at the effects of typical social drinking within the larger HIV-positive population: problem drinking is often lumped in with other kinds of substance use, whilst moderate drinking receives little attention. Sigma’s Wasted Opportunities report33 found that most gay men with problem alcohol use did not consider themselves alcoholics and only a minority sought help from social or health services. Healthcare providers may need to be more proactive in asking patients about how drinking affects their lives.

Alcohol use is an important consideration for people with HIV and warrants more awareness in both research and clinical practice.

Getting help

There is plenty of help available if you think you have an alcohol problem - or simply want to cut back on the amount you drink.

Talk to the healthcare team at your clinic. There are some services specifically for gay men and other people affected by HIV. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are available in most areas.

More information on alcohol, and on cutting down, is available from NHS Choices at or from Drinkline on 0800 9178282. Other useful contacts can be found at


  1.  World Health Organization – Global Health Observatory data. See

  2. Office for National Statistics. Drinking: adults’ behaviour and knowledge in 2009. Opinions Survey Report No. 42. 2010. See

  3. Bellis M et al. Cross-sectional measures and modelled estimates of blood alcohol levels in UK nightlife and their relationships with drinking behaviours and observed signs of inebriation. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy 5(1):5, 2010.

  4. Keogh P et al. Wasted opportunities: problematic alcohol and drug use among gay men and bisexual men. Sigma Research, 2009. See

  5. Stall R et al. Alcohol use, drug use and alcohol-related problems among men who have sex with men: the Urban Health Study. Addiction 96(11):1589-1601, 2001.

  6. Wafula GA et al.Survey report on treatment and nutrition information needs of people living with HIV carried out in the Northwest and North East of England.. Unpublished study, Black Health Agency. See

  7. Colfax G et al. Substance use and sexual risk: a participant- and episode-level analysis among a cohort of men who have sex with men. Am J Epidemiol 159(10):1002-1012, 2004.

  8. Hutton H et al. The relationship between recent alcohol use and sexual behaviors: gender differences among sexually transmitted disease clinic patients. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 32(11):2008-2015, 2008.

  9. World Health Organization (author Bianchi G) Alcohol use and sexual risk behaviour: a cross-cultural study in eight countries. 2005.

  10. David K et al. Alcohol's effects on sexual decision making: an integration of alcohol myopia and individual differences. J Stud Alcohol Drugs 68(6):843-851, 2007.

  11. Kalichman S et al. Sensation seeking as an explanation for the association between substance use and HIV-related risky sexual behavior. Arch Sex Behav 25(2):141-154, 1996.

  12. Kalichman S et al. Sensation seeking and alcohol use predict HIV transmission risks: prospective study of sexually transmitted infection clinic patients, Cape Town, South Africa. Addict Behav 33(12):1630-1633, 2008a.

  13. Mann R et al. The epidemiology of alcoholic liver disease. Alcohol Res Health 27(3):209-219, 2003.

  14. Maher J Exploring alcohol's effects on liver function. Alcohol Health Res World 21(1):5-12, 1997.

  15. Hatton J et al. Drinking patterns, dependency and life-time drinking history in alcohol-related liver disease. Addiction 10 Feb. 2009.

  16. Mallat A et al. Environmental factors as disease accelerators during chronic hepatitis C. J Hepatology 48(4):657-665, 2008.

  17. Fama R et al. Working and episodic memory in HIV infection, alcoholism, and their comorbidity: baseline and 1-year follow-up examinations. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research 33(10):1815-24, 2009.

  18. Green J et al. The effect of previous alcohol abuse on cognitive function in HIV infection. Am J Psychiatry 161(2):249-254, 2004.

  19. Cheng D et al. Alcohol consumption and lipodystrophy in HIV-infected adults with alcohol problems. Alcohol 43(1):65-71, 2009.

  20. Freiberg MS The association between alcohol consumption and prevalent cardiovascular diseases among HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected men. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 53(2):247-53, 2010.

  21. Kumar R et al. Increased viral replication in simian immunodeficiency virus/simian HIV-infected macaques with self-administering model of chronic alcohol consumption. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 39: 386-390, 2005.

  22. Bagby G et al. The effect of chronic binge ethanol consumption on the primary stage of SIV infection in rhesus macaques. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 27:495-502, 2003.

  23. Bagby G et al. Chronic binge ethanol consumption accelerates progression of simian immunodeficiency virus disease. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 30 (10): 1-10, 2006.

  24. Chander G et al. Hazardous alcohol use: a risk factor for nonadherence and lack of suppression in HIV infection. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 43:411-417, 2006.

  25. Cook J et al. Effects of alcohol and crack cocaine use on virological and immunological disease progression in a cohort of U.S. women with HIV/AIDS. 16th International AIDS Conference, Toronto, 2006.

  26. Baum M et al. Alcohol use accelerates HIV disease progression. AIDS Res Hum Retrovir 26(5), 2010 (Epub ahead of print).

  27. Cook R et al. Problem drinking and medication adherence among persons with HIV infection. J Gen Intern Med 16:83-88, 2001.

  28. Hendershot C et al. Alcohol use and antiretroviral adherence: review and meta-analysis. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 52(2):180-202, 2009.

  29. Lazo M et al. Patterns and predictors of changes in adherence to highly active antiretroviral therapy: longitudinal study of men and women. Clin Infect Dis 45(10):1377-1385, 2007.

  30. Kalichman S et al. Prevalence and clinical implications of interactive toxicity beliefs regarding mixing alcohol and antiretroviral therapies among people living with HIV/AIDS. AIDS Patient Care STDS 23(6):449-454, 2009.

  31. Kalichman S et al. Alcohol use and sexual risks for HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa: systematic review of empirical findings. Prev Sci 8(2):141-151, 2007a.

  32. Kalichman S et al. Randomized trial of a community-based alcohol-related HIV risk-reduction intervention for men and women in Cape Town South Africa. Ann Behav Med 36(3):270-279, 2008b.

  33.  Keogh P et al. op. cit.
This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
Community Consensus Statement on Access to HIV Treatment and its Use for Prevention

Together, we can make it happen

We can end HIV soon if people have equal access to HIV drugs as treatment and as PrEP, and have free choice over whether to take them.

Launched today, the Community Consensus Statement is a basic set of principles aimed at making sure that happens.

The Community Consensus Statement is a joint initiative of AVAC, EATG, MSMGF, GNP+, HIV i-Base, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, ITPC and NAM/aidsmap

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.

NAM’s information is intended to support, rather than replace, consultation with a healthcare professional. Talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team for advice tailored to your situation.