Q&A: Frederick S. Southwick, MD, Infections and Drug Addiction

Interviewed by Mark Gold, MD

Frederick S. Southwick, MD
Professor of Internal Medicine and Former ​Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Florida
2010 Harvard University Advanced Leadership Fellow
Expert in Medicine, Infectious Disease and Medical Errors​

We see patients who smoke cigarettes, drink and/or abuse drugs. How does this affect their immune status or ability to fight common infections? Any association between a drug dependency like cigarettes and/or marijuana, smoking and/or alcohol drinking?

Smoking is a major risk factor for developing pneumonia. Those who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day have three times the risk of developing pneumonia. Cigarette smoke damages the tracheal lining of the lungs, alters the consistency of the fluid that coats this lining, and destroys the cilia that move bacteria and other foreign substances out of the lung. When the fluid coating the tubes of the lung becomes thicker as a consequence of the inflammatory reaction to smoke, cilia can no longer transport this fluid, and the foreign particles, including bacteria, usually trapped by this fluid can no longer be transported out of the lungs. Damage to the cilia also interferes with this important protective mechanism.

Alcohol and other sedating drugs interfere with the function of the epiglottis. This large flap of tissue covers the trachea to prevent saliva, food and liquids from entering the lungs. We have all accidently choked on water when our epiglottis malfunctions and water enters the lung. We quickly cough it out. When drugs lead to sedation our epiglottis is more likely to malfunction and food, saliva and bacteria from the mouth can more easily enter the lungs. Sedation also interferes with our cough reflex, and as a consequence, severe aspiration pneumonia can follow an overdose or an episode of heavy drinking.

Drug abuse often leads to malnutrition and some drugs, particularly alcohol, can depress the body’s ability to produce white blood cells. Malnutrition and the loss of these cells can depress the normal acute immune response to infection, and as a consequence, infections are often more severe and life threatening in alcoholics and patients who suffer drug abuse.

Do substance abusers or addicts have more mono, flu, pneumonia, TB or other Infectious Diseases (ID)?

The incidence of mononucleosis is not known to be higher. Influenza is more severe in addicts with depressed immune responses. Tuberculosis may have a higher incidence in addicts because their depressed immune function allows the organism to more readily spread in the lungs and throughout the body.

What are some IDs associated with intravenous drug users?

Another major risk for infection is the use of intravenous drugs. Too often the drugs being injected into the blood stream are contaminated with bacteria, particularly Staphylococcus aureus (found on the skin) and Pseudomonas (found in tap water). These bacteria can infect the heart valves leading to endocarditis, a very serious and potentially fatal infection. Once bacteria enter the blood stream they can also lodge in small vessels of the bones, particularly the vertebral bodies or back bones resulting in bone infection or osteomyelitis. This infection is associated with chronic pain, fever and loss of energy. Osteomyelitis is very difficult to treat and requires six weeks of high dose intravenous antibiotics. Despite prolonged therapy, this infection often relapses resulting in years of pain and suffering.

In addition to bacteria contaminating intravenous drug preparations, shared needles can transmit viruses – Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV virus.  Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C both can lead to severe liver inflammation that causes scaring of the liver called cirrhosis. Eventually the liver fails resulting in ascites (filling of the abdominal cavity with fluid), dilatation and bleeding of the esophageal veins (esophageal varices) resulting in gastrointestinal bleeding, and difficulty detoxifying substances in the blood resulting in the loss of alertness and eventually coma (called Hepatic encephalopathy).

HIV is another dreaded and all too common complication of IV drug use.

What would you evaluate all IV addicts for?

All IV addicts should be screened for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV. They should also be screened for STDs.

What vaccinations would you suggest for patients with substance use disorders?

They should receive the influenza vaccine annually and the two pneumococcal vaccines. Also, if they are Hepatitis B antibody negative, they should receive the Hepatitis B vaccine.

Research You Can Use by Mark Gold, MDCan you explain Hepatitis C. What is it? Who gets it? Why do so many addicts and abusers have it? What can you do to prevent it? Diagnose it? Treat it?

Hepatitis C is a virus that specifically infects the liver. This virus is transmitted by blood and blood products. Before the virus was recognized in the early 1990s, it contaminated our blood supply. Risk factors associated with an increased risk of Hepatitis C include:

  • persons receiving blood transfusions or transplanted organs before July of 1992
  • those who received clotting factors before 1987
  • anyone born to a mother with Hepatitis C virus
  • anyone who shared needles to inject drugs, or who had tattoos or body piercing with unsterile equipment

Addicts who use intravenous drugs and share needles are at very high risk, because the virus is transmitted by needles contaminated with virally infected blood. Individuals infected with Hep C have very high numbers of viral particles in their blood, and when they share a needle with an uninfected person, that person is at high risk of inadvertently injecting those viral particles intotheir own blood stream and infecting their liver. The best way to prevent the spread of Hep C is to avoid IV drug use.

Another alternative is to use a clean needle, and never share needles. In some areas of the country, needle exchange programs have been instituted to prevent the spread of Hep C, Hep B, and HIV. The diagnosis can be readily made with a blood test that measures antibodies directed against the virus. This is a very sensitive and specific test and anyone who falls into the above risk groups should undergo testing because we now have excellent antiviral therapy for this infection. Direct acting antiviral therapy offers high cure rates of over 95% in most cases. Treatment usually takes 8-12 weeks of a single pill once per day. In more complicated cases, treatment may be continued for 24 weeks. The cost of treatment is very high ($1,000/ pill) usually costing between $80,000-100,000 to achieve a cure.

Is there a new epidemic of STDs. Which? Who gets which? Why do so many addicts and abusers have it? What can you do to prevent it? Diagnose it? Treat it?

Drug abuse is associated with increased sexual activity and the more sexual partners one has the greater the risk of STDs. The incidence of syphilis in the U.S. has increased among women by 36% from 2015 to 2016 and 15% in men during this same period. Also, the incidence of newborn syphilis has increased by 28% as a consequence of transmission from mother to child.

The group with the highest incidence of this infection is men having sex with men (MSM), and about ½ of MSM who have syphilis also have HIV. The incidence of gonorrhea has also increased during this time period by 22%. This is a particularly worrisome development because strains of gonorrhea are increasingly becoming drug resistant meaning that we are at risk of running out of antibiotic treatments for this infection in the future. Condoms prevent the spread of these diseases; and should always be used given the high risk of STDs among drug abusers.

Public health workers try to identify contacts when a STD case is reported so that these contacts can be tested and treated to prevent the further spread of infection. All patients who have more than one sexual partner or who use illicit drugs should be screened for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, Hepatitis B and HIV, particularly sexually active women under 25, pregnant women, and men having sex with men.

Syphilis, Hepatitis B and HIV are detected primarily through blood tests. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are tested using vaginal and urethral (opening of the penis) swabs. These tests are all very sensitive and specific. Syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are treated with antibiotics and can be cured. Hepatitis B, like Hepatitis C, can now be cured using antiviral agents, but at great expense. HIV requires lifelong treatment.

Can you explain HIV? AIDS? What is it? Who gets it? Why do so many addicts and abusers have it? What can you do to prevent it? Diagnose it? Treat it?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and is caused by a retrovirus that is transmitted primarily through blood and through sexual contact as an STD. HIV is a lifelong infection that over time destroys immune cells and results in opportunistic infections (infections by organisms that rarely infect people with normal immune systems) including cryptococcal (fungal) meningitis, pneumocystis pneumonia, and toxoplasmosis brain infections.

When the immune system deteriorates to the point of allowing these infections to develop, HIV infection is said to have progressed to AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.  Anti-retroviral medications can lower the viral counts and reverse this immunodeficiency; however, these medications cannot completely eradicate the infection, and they must be taken for life. If anti-retroviral medications are discontinued, the infection reactivates.

Can you explain what is HPV?  Is it just a woman’s problem? Who gets it? Why do so many addicts and abusers have it? What can you do to prevent it? Diagnose it? Treat it?

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a wart causing virus that is transmitted by close skin to skin contact and is most commonly transmitted by vaginal or anal sex. A high percentage of people become infected but our immune system often clears the virus; however, when the virus remains active it can cause genital warts that have a cauliflower like appearance. This virus can cause mouth and throat, penis, anal, vaginal and cervical cancer. The diagnosis of HPV is usually made based on examination. Cervical pap smears are recommended periodically for women to look for atypical precancerous cells. Treatment consists of removing the precancerous cells through surgical procedures. When cancer develops, chemotherapy and surgical resection are required.

There is no medical treatment for HPV. However, a very effective vaccine is now available that can prevent HPV induced cancer. The vaccine is recommended for all children at age 11-12 years and can be given up to age 21 for women and up to age 26 for men. This vaccine is strongly recommended for men who intend to have sex with men, transgenders, and adolescents who are immunocompromised, including patients with HIV.

For many years, we treated cigarette-related cancers rather than identifying smokers and helping people stop smoking. Is that still happening today with alcohol and drugs? With no drug testing or limited in Pediatrics and Medicine, how can asking the patient if they use or inject drugs identify and help treat the primary disease or users?

The newspapers and television news are now publicizing the worsening drug epidemic in our country. This epidemic has spread to people in every socioeconomic class. Given the many health risks of drug addiction, physicians and nurses have an obligation to ask questions about this potentially life-threatening behavior. Drug addiction is a disease, and to identify and treat this disease, medical caregivers are obligated to inquire about this important health issue. And those who suffer from drug addiction need not be ashamed. They should be open to help. The infectious disease risks of continuing addiction are real and potentially life threatening. Therapy for addiction is available and can be effective. Why wait until the damage has been done?