Contracting Hepatitis C from Injection Drug Use

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The furthest thing from your mind is health and wellness when you are actively using drugs. The physical appearance along with the internal health of someone in active addiction shows signs of neglect quickly. What if you are so desperate for a fix the only way to get it is to share a needle? Many users find themselves in this predicament and despite the extreme risks, they take the hit off the dirty needle.

If you or a loved one is in recovery, it is important to become proactive with getting your health back on track. Make becoming knowledgeable on how to be tested for diseases like Hepatitis C (Hep C or HCV) a priority.

Heroin and Sharing Needles

Sharing needles for any reason is unsafe. Heroin users are at greater risk to contract the Hep C virus because sharing needles is common. In 2015, 60–80% of injected drug users (IDUs) were Hep C positive for the virus. According to the US National Library of Medicine, Hep C surpassed the human immune deficiency (HIV/AIDS) virus death rate in the United States in 2013. In 2015, there were 5.2 million people living in the US with chronic hepatitis.

While there has been a vaccine for Hepatitis A and B since the early 1980s, there is no vaccine available for Hepatitis C. Hep C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease.

What is Contracting Hep C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation. Basically, your liver starts to swell. Hep C spreads through contaminated blood. The infection spreads when blood contaminated with the virus enters the bloodstream of a person who does not have the virus. The Mayo Clinic states that about half of the infected population are not aware they have HCV. This is usually because they are not experiencing symptoms. Symptoms at their basic level can take up to a decade to appear.

An estimated 80% of infected people will develop chronic HCV. Untreated chronic HCV is associated with increased risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer; these are costly and life-threatening. According to WebMd, the disease is called acute Hepatitis C when you first get it. The symptoms are:

  • Belly pain that includes clay-colored poop and dark-colored urine.
  • Jaundice- yellow tint to eyes and/or skin.
  • Sudden vomiting or nausea and lack of appetite (flu-like symptoms).
  • Joint pains and fatigue.
  • Fever that won’t go away.

If the Hep C virus is undetected for a long period of time, your body may begin to experience symptoms of cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). Those symptoms can include:

  • Fluid buildup in your belly. This is called ascites.
  • You begin to easily bruise and bleed.
  • Confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech creep up. This is known as Hepatic Encephalopathy (HE).
  • Your skin becomes itchy and hives or rashes appear.
  • Swollen legs and spidery blood vessels under your skin become noticeable.

Symptoms usually show up between 2-12 weeks after exposure to the virus. However, it is important to be mindful that you may not experience any symptoms at all.

How and Where to Get Tested for Hep C

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends routine Hep C testing for all current and former injection drug users. If available, you may have the opportunity to get tested for Hep C in rehab.

The American Liver Foundation explains the blood test used is called the Hepatitis C antibody test. The test will show if you have ever been infected, but it will not show if you are still infected. If the test is positive, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are infected, it just means that you were exposed to the virus at some point in your life. Once you have been infected, you will always carry the virus’ antibodies in your blood.

Going to an addiction treatment center will not only improve success for recovery from the addiction but will also improve the chances that the individual recovers from the Hepatitis C if infected.

Offering HCV testing in drug abuse treatment programs could help increase HCV case finding and decrease the transmission of the virus. A Better Today Recovery Services offers individualized treatment that is needed for heroin users to kick the mind-altering substance. They walk beside patients in rehabilitating both the body and the mind along with offering high-quality treatments for Hepatitis C.

What Medicines Work to Cure Hep C?

Until recently, Hep C treatment required weekly injections and oral medications. These medications were considered painful because they didn’t target the virus that made you sick. Instead, they revved up your immune system so that your body would fight Hep C the way it would when fighting the flu.

Today, chronic HCV is usually curable with oral medications (no shots needed) taken every day for 2-6 months. This medication targets the virus that is making you sick and slows down the damage being done to the liver.

The choice of medication and the length of treatment will depend on the Hepatitis C genotype, the presence of any existing liver damage, all other medical conditions, and if prior treatments have been given for Hepatitis. Due to research constantly evolving, recommendations for medications and treatment regimens are always changing. It is best to discuss treatment options with a medical professional and/or an addiction specialist.

Clean Needle Clinics to Prevent the Spread of Hep C

Needle exchange programs have become more universal in the U.S. At least 33 states have needle exchange programs in place to help prevent the spread of communicable diseases. According to A Better Today Recovery Services, Syringe Services Programs provide sterile needles and other supplies to anyone for free or for a minimal cost. Supplies may also be available through a pharmacy without a prescription.

Because most people with HCV do not know they have it, catching the infection as early as possible and beginning treatments is ideal in avoiding major liver damage. If you haven’t already been tested and you are or have been an injected drug user, talk to a doctor about being tested for the virus.



[1] Risk Factors Associated with HCV among Opioid-dependent Patients in a Multisite Study. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[2] Missed Opportunities for Hepatitis C Testing in Opioid Treatment Programs. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[3] Hepatitis C – Symptoms and causes. (2019, May 29). Retrieved from

[4] Risk Factors Associated with HCV among Opioid-dependent Patients in a Multisite Study. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[5] Understanding Symptoms of Hepatitis C. (2002, February 1). Retrieved from

[6] Cirrhosis and Your Liver. (2005, August 1). Retrieved from

[7] Ascites Basics. (2016, December 19). Retrieved from

[8] Hepatic Encephalopathy. (2015, August 20). Retrieved from

[9] U.S. 2009 Surveillance Data for Acute Viral Hepatitis | Statistics & Surveillance | Division of Viral Hepatitis | CDC. (2019, February 5). Retrieved from

[10] Getting Tested for Hepatitis C — American Liver Foundation. (2018, March 15). Retrieved from

[11] Hepatitis C – Symptoms and causes. (2019, May 29). Retrieved from


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