Safe drinking limits for people living with HIV may need to be lower than the recommendations for the rest of the population, according to a large American study. The drinking habits and health outcomes of over 18,000 men living with HIV were compared with those of over 42,000 men who didn’t have HIV. Most participants were in their forties, fifties and sixties.
Alcohol contributes to a wide range of cancers, liver disease, stroke and heart disease.
Looking at deaths from any cause, the researchers found a strong relationship between the amount people with HIV drank and their risk of death. After adjusting for other factors that could influence the results, men who had 30 to 70 alcoholic drinks a month (i.e. one or two a day) had a 30% higher risk of death than men who hardly drank at all. Men who drank more than this (70 or more drinks a month) had a 50% greater risk.
In contrast, only the higher level of drinking (70 or more a month) made a difference to deaths in HIV-negative men.
There were similar results when looking at results of blood tests, liver function tests and other markers of poorer health – there wasn’t any level of alcohol consumption which was ‘safe’ for men with HIV.
One limitation of the study is that it only includes data on men. Nonetheless, the greater harm caused by a unit of alcohol in women is well established. The overall findings probably apply to women, but at lower levels of alcohol consumption.
Some other studies suggest that a person living with HIV who consumes the same amount of alcohol as an HIV-negative person would have higher levels of alcohol in their blood than the person without HIV. This effect may be especially pronounced in people who aren’t taking HIV treatment.
The researchers concluded that people with HIV who drink more than 30 alcoholic drinks a month are at increased risk of health problems. This was an American study, using American standard drinks – for example, one drink is a small can of beer, a small glass of wine or a shot of whisky. No more than 30 drinks a month would amount to no more than one drink a day.
UK health authorities calculate alcohol quantities differently, but recently released advice from the Chief Medical Officer is consistent with the recommendations of the American study. One “unit” of alcohol in the UK is roughly half of a standard drink in the US. The UK government now recommends alcohol consumption below 14 units a week, which is the same as 8 American standard drinks a week – i.e. roughly one drink a day.
However, very few people in the general population and even fewer people with HIV drink this little. But this is the first major study to show that there are particular advantages for people living with HIV to cut back on alcohol.