Overview of HIV
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, spreads through body fluids and specifically attacks the immune system’s CD4 cells (also known as “T cells”), gradually destroying them and making the body less effective at combating diseases and infections. Untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which is the stage of HIV infection when your immune system is considerably damaged and T cells fall below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3). With AIDS, even diseases and infections that are easily combatted by healthy individuals pose a threat that can be fatal.
HIV is transmitted through the transfer of body fluids, including blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids and breast milk. In the United States, HIV is most commonly spread through sex or sharing an injected needle with someone with HIV.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, more than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with the HIV infection and nearly 1 in 8 are unaware that they are infected. Despite potentially experiencing an initial bout of flu-like symptoms during the first two to four weeks after infection, many of those infected never report symptoms for 10 years or more. The only way to determine whether one is infected with HIV is through testing. Health care providers can provide an HIV test and there are home test kits available. A number of organizations, including the CDC, offer free testing.
There is currently no effective cure for HIV, so once its acquired, focus is on controlling the virus and preventing it from progressing to AIDS. A person who has AIDS must receive treatment to prevent death.
While antiretroviral therapy has been shown to effectively curtail HIV from progressing to AIDS, the symptoms and side effects of the long-term drug therapy are considerable. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heart disease, weakened bones, muscle tissue breakdown and neuropathic pain are commonly reported during HIV treatment regimens and weight loss due to nausea and a loss of appetite compounds weaknesses in the immune system.
Findings: Effects of Cannabis on HIV
While the side effects of HIV and AIDS treatment can impinge on life quality, studies have shown that medical marijuana can help make the adverse effects more manageable. HIV positive patients consuming medical marijuana have reported significant improvements in appetite, muscle pain levels, nausea, anxiety, depression and skin tingling (Woodridge, et al., 2005). Studies have found that daily and chronic neuropathic pain related to HIV can be significantly lowered by regular cannabis consumption (Ellis, et al., 2008) (Abrams, et al., 2007). Medical marijuana also boosts appetite and daily functioning, helping to combat weight loss and muscle breakdown (Haney, Rabkin, Gunderson & Foltin, 2005).
Research also suggests that consuming medical marijuana is safe for patients with HIV/AIDS. One study found no significant association with cannabis use and the CD4 T-cell count of patients co-infected with HIV and HCV, which means medical marijuana had no adverse effects on the immune system (Marcellin, et al., 2016). Another study found that patients with an HIV/HCV co-infection that smoked marijuana were at no greater risk of liver fibrosis (Brunet, et al., 2013).
While research surrounding marijuana’s potential treatment effects on the HIV virus itself is limited, a recent study discovered that marijuana-like compounds blocked the spread of HIV virus during the infection’s late stages (Costantino, et al., 2012). Results from an animal trial also suggest that marijuana might be able to stop the spread of HIV. Monkeys that were infected with an animal form of the virus and administered with THC for 17 months saw a decrease in damage to the immune tissue of the stomach (Molina, et al., 2014).
Abrams, DI., Jay, CA., Shade, SB., Vizoso, H., Reda, H., Press, S., Kelly, ME., Rowbotham, MC. and Petersen, KL. (2007, February). Cannabis in painful HIV-associated sensory neuropathy: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Neurology, 68(7), 515-21.
Brunet, L., Moodie, E. E. M., Rollet, K., Cooper, C., Walmsley, S., Potter, M., Klein, M.B., for the Canadian Co-infection Cohort Investigators. (2013). Marijuana Smoking Does Not Accelerate Progression of Liver Disease in HIV–Hepatitis C Coinfection: A Longitudinal Cohort Analysis. Clinical Infectious Diseases: An Official Publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, 57(5), 663–670. http://doi.org/10.1093/cid/cit378
Costantino, CM., Gupta, A., Yewdall, A., Dale, B., Devi, L. and Chen, B. (2012) Cannabinoid Receptor 2-Mediated Attentuation of CXCR4-Tropic HIV Infection in Primary CD4+ T Cells. PLoS One, 7(3), e33961.
Ellis, R., Toperoff, W. Vaida, F., van den Brande, G., Gonzales, J., Gouaux, B., Bentley, H. and Atkinson, J. (2008, February) Smoked Medicinal Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain in HIV: A Randomized, Crossover Clinical Trial. Neuropsychopharmacology. 34(3), 672-680.
Haney, M., Rabkin, J., Gunderson, E. and Foltin, RW. (2005, August). Dronabinol and marijuana in HIV(+) marijuana smokers: acute effects on caloric intake and mood. Psychopharmacology, 181(1), 170-8.
Marcellin, F., Lions, C., Rosenthal, E., Roux, P., Sogni, P., Wittkop, L., Protopopescu, C., Spire, B., Salmon-Ceron, D., Dabis, F., Carrieri, M.P., for the HEPAVIH ANRS CO13 Study Group. (2016, April 13). No significant effect of cannabis use on the count and percentage of circulating CD4 T-cells in HIV-HCV co-infected patients (ANRS CO13-HEPAVIH French cohort). Drug and Alcohol Review, doi: 10.1111/dar.12398. [Epub ahead of print]
Molina, P. E., Amedee, A. M., LeCapitaine, N. J., Zabaleta, J., Mohan, M., Winsauer, P. J., Vande Stouwe, C., McGoey, R.R., Auten, M.W., LaMotte, L., Chandra, L.C., and Birke, L. L. (2014). Modulation of Gut-Specific Mechanisms by Chronic Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol Administration in Male Rhesus Macaques Infected with Simian Immunodeficiency Virus: A Systems Biology Analysis. AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, 30(6), 567–578. http://doi.org/10.1089/aid.2013.0182
U.S. Statistics. (n.d.). AIDS.gov. Retrieved from https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/statistics/.
Woodridge, E., Barton, S., Samuel, J., Osario, J., Dougherty, A. and Holdcroft, A. (2005, April 20). Cannabis use in HIV for pain and other medical symptoms. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 29(4), 358-67.