Treating Hepatitis C in Drug Abusers
Hepatitis C is a potentially life-threatening virus that damages a person’s liver functions. The condition belongs to the hepatitis family of viruses, which include hepatitis A and hepatitis B strains.
As the liver plays a vital role in filtering toxins out of the body, someone who uses drugs and has the hepatitis C virus is putting their overall health in serious jeopardy.
Like many virus strains, hepatitis can linger dormant in the body for years before it starts to actually affect liver functions. If you’ve used syringe injections for any period of time and find yourself getting flu-like symptoms on a frequent basis, you might want to make sure you haven’t contracted the hepatitis C virus.
The word “hepatitis,” in its literal sense, means inflammation of the liver. This is actually what happens over time once the virus becomes active in the body. During its dormant stage, the virus lives inside the liver and grows or multiplies. According to the San Diego State University Research Foundation, an estimated 4 million Americans have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus.
Hepatitis C enters the body through the bloodstream and travels to the liver. Hepatitis A, B and C differ in how the virus enters the body and the types of symptoms that develop. Hepatitis A can enter the body whenever someone eats or drinks something contaminated by the stool or blood of an infected person. Hepatitis B enters through contact with the mucous membranes or blood of an infected person. Hepatitis A does not develop into a chronic condition like the B and C strains can.
After 20 to 30 years, severe scarring prevents the liver from filtering toxins from the body. This condition is known as cirrhosis of the liver. When this happens, a person can die from the accumulation of toxins in the bloodstream. So, the earlier the hepatitis C virus is detected, the better chance a person has to receive needed medical treatments.
Transmission via Injection Drug Use
If you use syringes to inject drugs, such as LSD, cocaine or heroine into your body, it only takes one incident of sharing a syringe with an infected person to contract the virus. This means someone who has only experimented with injection drugs on a single occasion can be exposed to the virus. This easy transmission route makes hepatitis C contraction a major risk factor for injection drug use.
Hepatitis C can appear in “acute” form or “chronic” form. The acute form develops into a short-term illness within the first six months of exposure. If left untreated, acute hepatitis C will develop into a chronic viral infection that lives in the liver and attacks it on a daily basis. Fortunately, in recent years, several treatment methods have come to market, primarily consisting of the antiviral drug ribavirin combined with pegylated interferon alpha. This is able to effectively cure Hepatitis C in 70-80% of those treated over a 6 to 10-month course of treatment. Other drugs, such as boceprevir, telaprevir and sofosbuvir, have been shown to improve this cure rate, though all carry additional side effects.
Prevalence of Hepatitis C Infections
Within the United States, hepatitis C is the most common chronic viral infection found within the population, according to the San Diego State University Research Foundation. Of the 4 million people exposed to the virus:
- 85 percent will carry the infection for their entire lives
- 1 to 5 percent will contract liver cancer as a result of the virus
- Cirrhosis of the liver will develop in 10 to 20 percent of the people infected
- Chronic liver disease will develop in 60 to 70 percent of the people infected
Other Modes of Transmission
According to DrugWarFacts, over 60 percent of all new cases of hepatitis C injection result from injection drug use. Infection occurs within six to 12 months of the initial injection in 50 to 80 percent of cases. Part of the reason for this high infection rate has to do with the equipment used to prepare or “cook” intravenous drug solutions.
It’s not uncommon for a group of people to prepare drug solutions using a single set of equipment. Cookers and filtration cotton are used to prepare a solution for everyone in the group to use. These equipment materials provide additional routes for the transmission of hepatitis C from one person to another.
The same thing can happen when a drug solution is drawn up through a contaminated cotton filter. As the solution moves through the filter, the virus rinses off into the solution. Anyone who injects the drug solution is injecting the hepatitis C virus into their bloodstream.
While many intravenous drug users are well aware of the risks involved with sharing needles, many may not be aware of the risks involved with sharing equipment. You may want to share this information with groups you know that share equipment when using. If you’re involved in a group of your own, be sure to avoid using drugs that’ve been prepared in this manner to avoid infection.
The high rates of infection among intravenous drug users has created multiple opportunities for new users to become infected with hepatitis C soon after their first injection occurs. These circumstances will only increase the rate at which hepatitis C spreads through a population. Other factors involved with increasing infection rates involve the spread of different types of blood-borne viruses through injection drug use.
The human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV, is another type of virus that’s transmitted through the blood. People infected with HIV place themselves at serious risk of worsening their condition when exposed to the hepatitis C virus. As HIV attacks the body’s immune system, any exposure to hepatitis C can further damage the immune system and cause a full-blown AIDS condition to develop.
These conditions can make it even more difficult for an injection drug user to adhere to any medication treatment schedules needed to treat a hepatitis C virus infection. Ultimately, getting tested for hepatitis C and HIV on a regular basis is essential to prevent these conditions from destroying your health and your body.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C Infection
It can take anywhere from six months to five years before a person experiences any noticeable symptoms that a hepatitis C infection is present in the body. The sooner you identity potential symptoms, the better chance you have of reducing the amount of damage the virus causes and begin a course of treatment. Mayo Clinic lists the following symptoms as signs that a hepatitis C infection is active in the body:
- Frequent fevers
- Muscle and joint pains
- Abdominal tenderness around where the liver is located
- Loss of appetite
Effects of Ongoing Drug Use
Ongoing drug use – be it intravenous, alcohol use or consumption of other substances – increases the amount of work the liver has to do to keep excess toxins out of the bloodstream. This extra work places an additional strain on the liver and slows the organ’s ability to regenerate new cells as the virus attempts to take over existing cells.
These effects are even worse for people who consume large amounts of alcohol, as alcohol is known to directly impair liver function when consumed in large amounts. Entering a drug treatment program can help you eliminate one or more of the main risk factors that cause a hepatitis C infection to develop into chronic liver disease.
As different people have different physical makeups, a hepatitis C infection does not always develop into chronic liver disease or cirrhosis of the liver. The likelihood of an infection becoming severe depends on the number of risk factors a person has, such as drug use, alcohol consumption and immune system deficiencies at the time of diagnosis. Treatment for hepatitis C often involves a combination of pegylated interferon and ribavirin. Antivirals help to keep the virus under control in terms of reducing the rate at which the virus spreads through the liver.
Antiviral medications are usually prescribed when a fast-growing hepatitis C virus is present in the body. In cases where a patient is known to consume large amounts of alcohol, a doctor may actually disqualify the patient from receiving antiviral treatment, since alcohol cancels out the effects of the medication.
It’s important to get treatment as soon as possible if you have been exposed to hepatitis C. You also need to address the addiction issues behind your drug use, to prevent further exposure to the virus and other life-threatening results.