Hepatitis C is a liver infection that is caused by the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread through contact with the blood of a person with HCV.
According to research, cases of hepatitis C in the United States tripled between 2009 and 2018. And the fact that this has coincided with the opioid epidemic is no coincidence.
A study published in the journal Health Affairs shows that the opioid crisis has driven the rise in Hepatitis C nationwide, largely as a result of injection drug use.
What Causes Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is caused by the acute hepatitis C virus. HCV transmission occurs through contact with the blood of someone who has acute or chronic HCV.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this liver disorder can be short-term for some, or become a chronic condition.
Today, the most common way HCV is contracted is through the sharing of needles and other injection drug use equipment (e.g syringes).
How Is The Opioid Epidemic Linked To Hepatitis C?
Opioid drugs like heroin are commonly injected into the body. This can cause quicker, more powerful effects than snorting or swallowing opioids.
Chronic opioid abuse (specifically injection drug use) has been linked to:
- infectious diseases (HCV, HIV infection)
- opioid dependence
- opioid use disorder
- various liver and kidney problems
- opioid overdose
Research on opioid use disorder and hepatitis C virus infection shows a specific link between the introduction of an abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin in 2010 and rising cases of HCV.
According to researchers, that link can largely be explained by a shift that occurred from widespread prescription opioid misuse to the injection of heroin.
Heroin Abuse And Hepatitis C
As overdose deaths involving prescription opioid analgesics began to skyrocket in the early 2000s, the federal government intervened by cracking down on prescribing practices.
Years later, researchers have found that this led to many patients legally receiving prescription opioids for pain conditions getting cut off from their medication by healthcare providers.
To avoid withdrawal, or otherwise treat acute/chronic pain conditions, some of those who used, or misused prescription opioids turned to the illicit drug market — specifically, heroin.
And self-reported information from the population of those who use heroin shows that heroin is most commonly used by way of injection.
Risk Factors For HCV
A number of factors can influence the risk of a person contracting HCV.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you may be at risk for HCV if you:
- have struggled with chronic drug abuse
- currently inject or formerly injected drugs
- share needles, syringes, or other drug preparation equipment
- receive long-term opioid therapy (i.e. chronic prescription opioid use)
- have received medical hemodialysis
- have been exposed to HCV-positive blood in healthcare settings
- were born to a mother with HCV infection
- received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
What Are The Symptoms Of Hepatitis C?
Most people with acute hepatitis C or chronic hepatitis C are asymptomatic or experience mild physical symptoms of illness.
When symptoms of viral hepatitis do occur, they can include:
- jaundice (yellowed skin/eyes)
- dark urine
- clay-colored stool
- joint pain
- stomach pain
- loss of appetite
According to the CDC, mild symptoms may appear within six to 12 weeks of HCV exposure.
Risks And Dangers Of Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is a leading cause of death from liver disease in the United States. About half of people who become infected with HCV develop a chronic infection.
Furthermore, of every 100 people with HCV infection, an estimated five to 25 develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) within 10 to 20 years.
It’s also a risk factor for liver cancer and liver failure.
Treatment For Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is generally treated with antiviral treatment interventions, which can help clear the virus from the body.
Additional HCV treatment and health services may be necessary if you have developed severe liver complications as a result of HCV.
Treatment For Opioid Addiction
If you have contracted HCV as a result of opioid abuse, additional substance use disorder treatment may be necessary to help you stop drug use and prevent further complications.
Without treatment, opioid use disorder can lead to a range of physical and mental health consequences, as well as affect overall quality of life.
Treatment for opioid addiction commonly involves:
- opioid detox
- medication for opioid use disorder (e.g. methadone, buprenorphine)
- behavioral therapy
- drug counseling
- group therapy
- outpatient care and follow-up
- other social services as needed (e.g. housing assistance)
Find Help For Hepatitis C And Opioid Abuse
Overcoming opioid addiction is possible. If you’re looking for treatment options for yourself or a loved one who injects drugs, we may be able to help.
Call our helpline today to find an opioid addiction treatment program that’s right for you.