Millions of Americans struggle to control their use of drugs or alcohol, and opiates such as heroin represent one of the most difficult types of drugs to combat. An estimated 314,000 Americans have used heroin within the past year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Unfortunately for those addicted to heroin, the drug is associated with increased rates of HIV infection, fatal overdose, heart and lung problems, kidney disease, and hepatitis C. All of these conditions significantly decrease quality of life, with hepatitis C representing a serious threat to overall health.
What Is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease, meaning that it is spread when a person is exposed to the bodily fluids of an infected individual. There are three types of hepatitis — A, B, and C. Of these, hepatitis B and C can result in chronic disease that impacts health for the rest of a person’s life. Hepatitis C is caused by a virus, meaning that antibiotics and other drugs cannot combat it.
Although there are vaccines available to prevent the transmission of hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Thus, any individual could contract the illness if exposed to the virus through an infected person’s bodily fluids.
Hepatitis C is characterized by liver problems. Interestingly, 70 to 80% of those infected with hepatitis C do not experience symptoms in the first weeks following exposure to the virus. Even if a person has no symptoms, he or she can still spread the disease to others. In those who do experience symptoms of hepatitis C, the symptoms may include:
- High fever
- Fatigue or feeling run down
- Loss of appetite
- Dark colored urine
- Bowel movements that are clay colored
- Nausea and vomiting
- Significant abdominal pain
- Pain in the joints
- Jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin and eyes
In general, symptoms of hepatitis begin to emerge between 2 weeks to 6 months after being exposed to the virus. The acute infection phase lasts around six months. Although some people’s immune systems successfully clear the virus from their bodies, most people develop chronic hepatitis C infection, which lasts years or an entire lifetime. This often culminates in cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer, both of which can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60 to 70% of individuals who contract hepatitis C develop chronic liver disease, with 5 to 20% experiencing cirrhosis of the liver.
The Link Between Heroin Use and Hepatitis C
Heroin users are at particularly high risk of hepatitis C infection. Because the virus is transmitted through bodily fluids, sharing needles or other equipment to inject heroin causes one person to be exposed to another’s blood.
There is also a possibility of hepatitis C being transmitted through unprotected sex, which occurs at higher rates among intravenous drug users. Transmission from coughing, sneezing, or kissing a person with hepatitis C does not occur.
Steps to Reduce Risk of Contracting Hepatitis C
Approximately 3.2 million Americans currently have chronic hepatitis C infection, making it a significant public health priority. It’s recommended that a person get tested for hepatitis C if he or she ever injected drugs, even if it only happened one time or was very long ago. Thus, all people who have used heroin intravenously, whether currently or formerly, should receive a hepatitis C test.
The best way to prevent hepatitis C infections among heroin users is to never share a needle or other drug paraphernalia with another person. The availability of needle exchange programs, in which individuals struggling with heroin addiction have access to clean, sterile needles, make this more feasible. Also avoid sharing razors, toothbrushes, or other personal care items that might have blood on them. It’s also important to practice safe sex, including routine condom use with all sexual partners.
Treatment of Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C does not have a cure, but medications are available to reduce its negative effects. Because hepatitis C affects the liver, it is important that individuals infected with the virus avoid drinking alcohol.
It is also recommended that a person consult a doctor before taking new supplements, prescription medications, or over-the-counter medications, as these can affect liver functioning.