By Mary Elizabeth Dallas
WEDNESDAY, May 25, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- People infected with hepatitis C are more likely to be current or former heavy drinkers, a new study suggests.
Adults with hepatitis C were three times more likely to have five or more drinks daily -- currently or in the past -- than people who didn't have the virus, according to the study published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"Alcohol promotes faster development of fibrosis and progression to cirrhosis [scarring of the liver] in people living with hepatitis C, making drinking a dangerous and often deadly activity," said lead investigator Amber Taylor, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Viral Hepatitis.
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by a virus transmitted by blood, such as by sharing needles. Chronic hepatitis C can result in long-term health problems such as liver cancer, according to the CDC.
In the United States, alcohol abuse claims nearly 88,000 lives each year, the researchers reported. Drinking is particularly harmful for those with hepatitis C, they noted.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey on more than 20,000 people. Specifically, they examined hepatitis C infection rates among the following four groups: those who never drank, former drinkers, current non-heavy drinkers, and current heavy drinkers.
Although the study was not designed to prove cause-and-effect, the investigators found higher rates of hepatitis C among former drinkers and current heavy drinkers than those who never drank or only drank in moderation.
A follow-up survey of participants who had been infected with the virus at some point in their lives showed that 50 percent were unaware of their hepatitis C status.
"Half of all people living with hepatitis C are not aware of their infection nor the serious medical risks they face when consuming alcohol," Taylor said in a journal news release.
"This highlights the need for increased diagnosis, as well as comprehensive and effective interventions to link hepatitis C-infected individuals to curative treatments now available and provide education and support needed to reduce alcohol use," she added.
The CDC recommends that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested at least once for hepatitis C. Those who test positive for the virus should be screened for alcohol use, the agency advises.
The researchers said their findings could help health care providers develop more effective treatment strategies and interventions for their patients.