Most detox facilities and treatment centers offer to test for the hepatitis C virus and for HIV for their patients, especially those who engaged in intravenous drug use during their active addiction. In my experience, each rehabilitation facility I entered tested me for both of these illnesses upon intake. Although I was always relieved to receive negative results, I was also, quite frankly surprised each time.
As an IV drug user, nearly everyone I associated with during my active addiction had a blood borne disease transmitted through the use of shared syringes. I was terrified of HIV because I knew little about the illness and mistakenly thought it was a death sentence. My attitude toward the hepatitis C virus was the opposite extreme. So many people I knew had it. I nearly expected to contract it and believed that it wasn’t a huge concern. What I didn’t understand is that this blood-borne illness is transmittable in more ways that through intravenous use. I also didn’t realize that it can be fatal if left untreated. Unfortunately, I was atrociously unfamiliar with a condition that I was almost positive I would eventually contract. Here’s what I didn’t know about the hepatitis C virus:
The Hepatitis C Virus is Transmitted Through a Variety of Routes
During my years of drug use, I had a lot of misguided ideas about health and safety. I understood that the virus was transmittable through syringes; but, I mistakenly thought that as long as I only shared needles with people I trusted and that I regularly ran bleach through my needles before using them; I would kill any viruses and avoid contracting the illness. Unfortunately, these commonly-held beliefs in my social circle were false. Bleach will not kill hepatitis C or HIV. Sharing needles always put one at risk for contracting an illness. Before getting sober, I didn’t realize any of the following facts about hepatitis C virus risks to IV drug users:
- Hepatitis C can be passed through sharing straws, cotton, cookers/spoons, or any other drug paraphernalia that comes into contact with human blood, not just syringes
- The virus can live for up to three weeks at room temperature outside of the human body and is transmissible during this time
- The virus lives longer inside of liquid, including blood and water
- The illness caused by a hepatitis C infection often has no symptoms. Sometimes it goes undetected until liver damage from the virus is present
This means that every time I put a needle in my arm, I was putting myself at risk of contracting hepatitis C. Whether I shared needles or not, the virus can be contracted through shared surfaces or paraphernalia besides needles, even though it is a blood borne illness. The reality is that using drugs is always a risk, and significant health issues are often the result of a drug habit. The hepatitis C virus is no exception. If this illness is left undetected or untreated, it can be fatal as the result of cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure.
Symptoms of a Hepatitis C Virus Infection
Using drugs intravenously puts individuals at risk for a host of medical complications, including hepatitis C. While there are often few or no symptoms of the illness, some can appear. Someone using IV drugs or who is recently sober would benefit from a hepatitis C screening. This is especially true if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- Jaundice (a condition in which the eyes and skin turn a yellowish color)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Abnormally dark urine
- Loss of appetite
Even with no symptoms, any individual who engages in IV drug use is at risk for contracting the hepatitis C virus and other blood-borne illnesses. Be sure to request regular testing to catch any issues right away.
Prevention and Treatment
Although chronic hepatitis C can be damaging and even fatal if an individual does not receive treatment; new infections are preventable. Some counties and states have reduced hepatitis C viral infections through needle exchange programs. While these programs do help decrease the risk of infectious disease; the only way to ensure that you don’t contract a blood-borne illness is to seek treatment and cease IV drug usage.
Getting sober and stopping drug use also gives individuals the best chance of effectively treating hepatitis C if they have contracted the virus. There are numerous treatment methods available for chronic hepatitis C, and some methods even completely clear the virus from the body and cure the illness in patients, depending on genotype. However, in order for these treatments to be effective, patients have to abstain from alcohol and drugs- another case in which health depends upon sobriety for IV drug users.
I was fortunate enough to avoid contracting the hepatitis C virus as the result of my drug use. But, this illness is becoming increasingly common. While treatment is available and patients can live long and healthy lives following an infection, ultimately the only way that an IV drug user can avoid the potentially fatal effects of hepatitis (or any other drug-related health issue) is to get and stay clean.