Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation and, at times, results in major damage to your liver. The virus that causes it spreads through blood and other bodily fluids. If you inject drugs, your odds of getting hep C rise.
IV Drug Use and Hepatitis C
If you inject drugs into your veins, you can pass hep C by sharing needles with someone who’s infected with it.
You can also get drug-related hep C from:
- Equipment used to prepare drugs (cookers, cottons, water, ties, and alcohol swabs)
- Touching infected blood
- Contaminated surfaces
What’s the Health Impact of IV Drug Use?
Besides hep C, IV drug use can cause other health problems. These include:
- Overdose. When misused, any drug can be harmful to your health. But IV drugs carry a greater chance of overdose because you inject them directly into your bloodstream, which boosts their impact.
- Unusual weight loss. Injecting illicit drugs can cause you to lose a lot of weight. That’s because they trick your body into thinking it has more energy that it really does. Then you need more calories to stay awake longer.
- Abscesses. Repeated IV drug use can cause abscesses, a painful collection of pus beneath your skin. You’re also prone to other skin infections and inflammation.
- Vein collapse. When you inject the same spot too many times, it can form a scar or bruise and trigger vein collapse. That happens when your vein’s interior lining swells and it can’t work the right way. Then your blood stops flowing through that vein.
- Skin ulcers. These open wounds result from poor blood flow. They’re a common result of IV drug misuse. Your body needs proper blood flow for healing, including an injection wound. When it can’t recover, you may form an ulcer.
What Happens With Untreated Hep C?
Left untreated, it can cause health problems including:
- Liver scarring (cirrhosis). Years of untreated hep C can cause liver scarring, or cirrhosis. The condition makes it hard for your liver to work properly and carry out its job.
- Liver failure. When cirrhosis reaches an advanced stage, it may result in liver failure. That’s when your liver shuts down and stops working.
- Liver cancer. Hep C may lead to liver cancer, but this happens to few people with the condition.
What Are Other Health Impacts of Hep C?
It can affect you in other ways, increasing the risk of:
- Hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid
- Hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Changes in your thinking and mental abilities (cognitive impairment)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Gallbladder problems
Preventing Hepatitis C From IV Drug Use
The only way to avoid hep C when you inject drugs is to stop. But if you can’t or won’t stop, take these measures to protect yourself:
- Avoid sharing drug injection equipment.
- Use new equipment each time you inject, including cookers, cottons, water, ties, and alcohol swabs.
- Clean every surface that your drug equipment will touch.
- Don’t use syringes with detachable needles.
- Wash your hands well with soap and water before and after injecting.
- Clean the area on your body you plan to inject with alcohol or soap and water.
- Keep a close eye on your injection equipment to avoid sharing.
Screening for Hep C
If you inject drugs now or have in the past, you should get tested for hep C. If you currently inject drugs, you’ll need to get tested more often.
Your doctor might test you for the disease and its effects by:
Blood sample. Collecting a blood sample and testing it in a lab will confirm whether you have hepatitis C. If your first test is positive, more tests will pinpoint the virus’ genotype and measure how much of it’s in your blood.
Liver damage tests. Your doctor may check you for liver damage. Tests include:
- Liver biopsy. This involves using ultrasound to guide a narrow needle into your belly to extract some of your liver tissue. Doctors then test your tissue in a lab.
- Blood tests. These can help determine the level of fibrosis (scar tissue) in your liver.
- Ultrasound. One type, called transient elastography, sends vibrations into your liver and checks how fast they move through the tissue. This test is designed to gauge stiffness in your liver.
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Gateway Foundation: “The Health Dangers of IV Drug Use.”
CDC: “People Who Use or Inject Drugs,” “Hepatitis C & Injection Drug Use.”
American Addiction Centers: “Hepatitis C and Addiction.”
The Hepatitis C Trust: “Impact of hepatitis C on wider health.”
American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases: “Key Populations: Identification and Management of HCV in People Who Inject Drugs.”