Strategies to avoid opiate withdrawal: Implications for HCV and HIV risks

BACKGROUND: Research on heroin withdrawal has primarily been done clinically, thus focussing on symptom severity, physiological manifestations, and how withdrawal impairs normal functioning. However, there is little scientific knowledge on how heroin withdrawal affects injection behaviour. This paper explores how withdrawal episodes heighten unsafe injection practices and how some long-term injectors manage such risks.

METHODS: We interviewed 32 injection drug users in New York City who had been injecting drugs for 8-15 years (21 HIV and HCV uninfected; 3 HIV and HCV infected; and 8 singly infected with HCV). We used in-depth life history interviews to inquire about IDUs’ life history, injection practices and drug use behaviour over time. Analysis used grounded theory techniques.

RESULTS: Withdrawal can enhance risk by undermining IDUs’ willingness to inject safely; increasing the likelihood of attending risky settings; raising the number of injection partners; and seeking ad hoc partners for drug or needle sharing. Some IDUs have developed practices to cope with withdrawal and avoid risky practices (examples include carrying clean needles to shooting galleries and sniffing rather than injecting). Strategies to avoid withdrawal include back up methods, resorting to credit, collaborating with others, regimenting drug intake, balancing drug intake with money available, and/or resorting to treatment.

CONCLUSION: Withdrawal periods can heighten risky injection practices. Some IDUs have applied strategies to avoid withdrawal or used practices to cope without engaging in risky practices. These behaviours might in turn help IDUs prevent an infection with hepatitis C or HIV.

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Full citation:
Mateu-Gelabert P, Sandoval M, Meylakhs P, Wendel T, Friedman SR (2010).
Strategies to avoid opiate withdrawal: Implications for HCV and HIV risks
International Journal of Drug Policy, 21 (3), 179-185. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2009.08.007. PMCID: PMC2847014.