The opioid crisis in the United States continues to escalate. The number of people abusing and injecting opioids is rising, and so is the number of people with hepatitis C, a viral infection also known as hep c or HCV that causes liver inflammation. Without treatment, opioid abuse and hep C can both cause serious and sometimes fatal complications. Understand the connection between opioid use disorder and hepatitis C and learn how to help yourself or a loved one reduce hep C risk. 

People who inject opioids are at high risk of hep C.

The most common way to contract hepatitis C is by sharing needles to take drugs. The blood from an infected person stays in the needle, and when the next person uses it, the infected blood shoots into the body. Less commonly, hep C is spread through sexual contact or receiving a tattoo or body piercing with an infected needle. It can also be spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants, but these scenarios are rare today.

Historically, the majority of those affected by hepatitis C were Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1965, usually caused by infected blood received during blood transfusions and organ transplants before experts understood how hep C was transmitted. Today, however, more and more young people are becoming infected with hepatitis C, and research finds injectable drug abuse, particularly opioid abuse, to be the main culprit.

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that between 2004 and 2014, the number of people admitted to substance abuse centers due to opioid abuse rose 93% and the number of cases of acute hepatitis C rose 133%. The CDC suggests the two trends are closely linked, especially because those implicated in both groups were more likely to be between 18 and 29 years old.

It’s possible to stop the spread of hep C.

Opioid injection not only increases the risk of hepatitis C, it also increases the risk of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for many of the same reasons. Opioid addiction can also lead to problems at work or school, financial hardships, legal issues, drug overdose, and death.

To stop injecting opioids, seek professional medical help. A doctor or substance abuse program can help you overcome opioid use disorder and prescribe medications that ease withdrawal symptoms. If that isn’t realistic for you or a loved one right now, follow these precautions when using needles:

  • Use a new, sterile needle every time you inject

  • Clean your skin with alcohol before injecting

  • Use sanitary paraphernalia and sterile water

  • Don’t rely on bleach to remove viruses completely

  • Check into sterile needle programs in your community

  • Throw needles away carefully, so they don’t stick you or others

If you’ve injected opioids or other drugs, you may have already contracted hepatitis C without realizing. A simple blood test at your doctor’s office or clinic can tell you your status. It’s important to know if you have hepatitis C to prevent passing it to other people and to begin the treatment you need. Without treatment, hepatitis C can lead to severe liver damage and may be fatal. The good news? Effective treatment for hepatitis C is available, and some people only need treatment for two to three months. Nearly all cases can be cured within six months.
If you’re struggling with opioid use disorder and are worried about your hep C risk, there’s no shame in asking for help. Many substance abuse programs can help ease opioid withdrawal symptoms as well as provide hep C treatment. You don’t have to get through this alone, and a center near you can give you the resources, support, and treatment you need to move forward.

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