Since their discovery in the early 1980’s, HIV and AIDS have cast a large, destructive shadow over global society. The AIDS epidemic has had an unprecedented impact on our culture, changing the way view, talk about, and handle sex, freedom, and public health. In certain areas of the world, the AIDS epidemic seems to have calmed down and even lost its “public health crisis” status. We may not hear as much about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the U.S. as in previous decades, but it’s still a huge problem.
With the advent of medical cannabis in American healthcare, many will wonder whether cannabis has any potential to treat HIV or AIDS. As of today, there is still no cure for this devastating illness, so how might cannabis possibly help? Understanding the ins and outs of HIV/AIDS, as well as medical cannabis, may be crucial in answering this question.
It’s rare not to talk about HIV and AIDS in the same breath, but the difference between the two is the very thing that explains their connection. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a lentivirus, which means its effects come slowly after a long incubation period. The virus was identified under two different names in the early 80’s until both classifications were consolidated under the HIV moniker in 1986.
HIV is still separated into two types: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is far more widespread and typically what people are talking about when they use the term HIV. HIV-2 is far less transmittable, and therefore extremely less common. Recent data suggests that 1.8 million people became infected with HIV, a significant portion of which were children. Of the millions of people currently infected with HIV, roughly 40% are unaware of their infection.
Most commonly, HIV is a sexually transmitted infection. Non-sexual transmission of the virus includes needle sharing, blood transfusions, and piercings. Mothers can also transfer HIV to their children either through birth (by way of exposure to vaginal fluids) or breast milk.
There are several subtypes of HIV-1 that coincide with the regions in which they are most common. The ways in which these subtypes are transmitted also depend on the region in which they are spread. In Eastern Europe, for example, drug use through injection is strongly tied to the spread of Subtype A, whereas the same subtype is usually transmitted through heterosexual sex in sub-Saharan Africa. In the United States, HIV transmission is still most commonly sexual, 70% of which from men who sleep with other men. Transmission through drug injection and needle sharing, though commonly feared, has gone down to 7%. Sex workers also account for an incredibly low percentage of global HIV transmissions.
HIV carries with it a slew of common myths and misconceptions. Many think that, because the virus is transmitted through blood, it can also be carried by mosquitoes. Even in high-HIV areas with mosquitoes, there’s no evidence that mosquito bites transfer HIV from one bite victim to another. It’s also a commonly held belief that straight people are less susceptible to HIV. While its true that the highest percentage of sexually transmitted HIV cases happen among homosexual men, HIV is still a risk for heterosexual people who have unprotected sex. It’s also common for people who have been diagnosed as HIV-positive to think their life is over. Fortunately, treatment for HIV-positive folks has improved drastically since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
After an incubatory (and oftentimes dormant) phase, HIV develops into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The simplest way to distinguish AIDS from HIV is to think of AIDS as a series of illnesses and complications of the HIV virus. AIDS is also commonly thought of simply as “late-stage HIV”. In other words, AIDS is not a virus in and of itself.
In order to break down the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, it’s important to make the distinction between the three stages of HIV infection:
Acute infection occurs within two weeks to a month after contraction. As the virus spreads rapidly, flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, throat inflammation, rash) begin to occur.
Chronic infection—also known as clinical latency—is characterized by a lack of visible symptoms for most of its duration. Near the end of clinical latency, it’s possible to experience muscle pains and gastrointestinal problems.
AIDS is most often characterized by opportunistic infections which occur after the immune system has been weakened or obliterated. Opportunistic infections can be anything from sarcoma to cervical cancer. Tumors in the skin and lungs are also common AIDS-related infections.
Both HIV and AIDS are usually diagnosed through medical laboratory testing, followed by an evaluation of symptoms to determine the stage. For children, standard HIV testing isn’t as accurate and requires more complex methods. The general rule for AIDS diagnosis is that the patient must have a CD4 + T cell count of less than 200 per cubic millimeter.
Another key element of AIDS diagnosis is understanding the difference between AIDS and AID (autoimmune disease). Though autoimmune diseases share early symptoms with HIV/AIDS (including fever and fatigue), the differences are much more drastic. Autoimmune diseases are not contagious and include common illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. It’s also important to note that AIDS and AID affect the immune system differently. AIDS weakens the immune system, while an autoimmune disease causes the immune system to overcompensate and attack the body.
Since there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS, prevention is the most prominent form of resistance to the virus. For sexual transmission, physical protection—most successfully in the form of condoms—remains a very successful prevention method. Needle exchange programs also help to reduce the risk of infections by drug injection. Evidence also suggests that male circumcision has been effective in reducing HIV in Africa.
There is no treatment for HIV/AIDS beyond slowing the progression of the disease and reducing painful symptoms. One of the most common forms of treatment is antiviral therapy. HIV/AIDS treatment also involves the treatment of opportunistic infections when they arise. Preventative measures have also successfully reduced the effects of opportunistic infections.
According to the World Health Organization, nutrition is an essential part of HIV/AIDS treatment. For both adults and children with HIV, maintaining a generally healthy diet can be hugely beneficial. A proper diet combats both the energy and weight loss associated with late-stage HIV. Research suggests that HIV patients should have diets high in some micronutrients and low in others. Vitamin A, zinc, and iron are all considered nutrients that adult HIV patients should avoid.
Medical and recreational cannabis laws remain controversial in the U.S. In 2016, nine states legalized marijuana, five of which for recreational use. Medical marijuana research continues to show the plant’s potential in treating an incredibly wide variety of illnesses. With only a small window of treatment options currently available, many will wonder whether the advent of medical marijuana in the U.S. has anything to offer HIV/AIDS patients.
Unfortunately, medical marijuana has not altered the course of HIV/AIDS treatment as we know it. The virus still has no cure, but there’s certainly a place for medical cannabis in the treatment of HIV symptoms and opportunistic infections. In states where medical cannabis is legal, HIV/AIDS patients are already being prescribed helpful marijuana strains.
Cannabis varieties are usually referred to as “strains”. Different cannabis strains emphasize different effects of the plant. All marijuana strains fit into one of three categories: indica, sativa, and hybrid. Indica offers body-centric effects, while sativa offers the cerebral “high” usually associated with marijuana’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compound. Hybrid cannabis strains combine indica and sativa for a wider variety of effects. Hybrids like Blue Dream and White Widow have become popular strains for their calm, balanced effects.
There’s certainly no shortage of marijuana strains available to treat symptoms and opportunistic infections of HIV and AIDS. Nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss (which leads to malnutrition) are all AIDS symptoms that certain cannabis strains can alleviate. Cannabis can also treat emotional and psychological stress.
All of these strains provide an easy, balanced high, and most of them offer a subtle, calming energy boost.
Tahoe OG Kush
Girl Scout Cookies
Girl Scout Cookies offers a winning combination of heavy body relaxation and a sweet aroma. Both Candyland and Tahoe OG Kush are good daytime or morning strains and may help HIV/AIDS patients start the day off right with a solid breakfast. Dieticians have also prescribed raw cannabis as a powerful nutritional source.
Both Harlequin and Pennywise provoke a generally positive attitude, while Laughing Buddha (as the name suggests) and Sour Kush are a bit stronger for those who need an immediate cheering up. Northern Lights is nice for those who need a mood boost as well as a good night’s sleep.
If you’ve already looked into medical cannabis as HIV/AIDS treatment, you may have come across CBD hemp oil, one of the most popular medicinal cannabis products. CBD oil is non-psychoactive, and legal in more places than other cannabis products. Though a viable alternative medicine for many illnesses, CBD oil may be less effective for than a full cannabis strain.
If you are HIV-positive and think a particular cannabis strain might help to alleviate your symptoms, be sure to consult a trusted physician and make sure that cannabis won’t affect your current treatment regimen adversely. It’s also crucial to know your local cannabis laws. Finally, be sure to buy cannabis from trusted sources. Medical marijuana is a young industry, and not without its fair share of scammers. If you consult with a cannabis doctor, make sure they meet the necessary requirements to help you make a proper treatment plan.
For more information on cannabis and HIV/AIDS, visit HIV/AIDS is Not Just an 80s Epidemic. How Cannabis Can Help Treat HIV Symptoms.