Being diagnosed with hepatitis C may seem daunting at first, but it is important to know that there are new breakthroughs that can cure hep C. Not only that, but the chronic diseases that directly result from hep C can often be treated, making the virus much less formidable. Of course, the best option is to avoid getting the virus in the first place. How you can do so is discussed in detail here.
In order to give you a comprehensive understanding of hepatitis C and recent breakthroughs in treating the chronic condition, this post covers the topic from beginning to end. If you currently know nothing about hep C and want to learn about its causes and effects, you have come to the right place. In this post, we address all of the following questions regarding hepatitis C:
- What is hepatitis C?
- How common is hepatitis C?
- Is hep C contagious?
- What are the symptoms of this virus?
- Is hep C a chronic condition?
- How is hepatitis C transmitted and contracted?
- What are the causes of hep C?
- How are hep C and substance abuse connected?
- How can you avoid getting hepatitis C?
- Is there a cure for hep C?
- How can hepatitis C be treated?
What to Know About Hepatitis C: Symptoms & Causes
What is Hepatitis C?
First and foremost, those who know little about hepatitis C or drug use may be asking what the disease actually is. In simple terms, hepatitis C (sometimes just called HCV or hep C) is a chronic disease that directly affects the liver. The disease is infectious, and can be spread through direct contact with blood that has been infected with hep C.
Because of this kind of transmission, the virus is most commonly spread intravenously: that is, when injection drug users share needles or fail to use new injection equipment when using drugs like heroin or methamphetamine. However, this is not the only means of contracting the virus, and hep C affects millions of people all over the United States. In order to gain a full understanding of the scope and impact of hepatitis C, consider the following statistics:
- Hep C is the most common chronic viral infection
- Over 4 million people have been exposed to the virus
- 85 percent of those exposed to hep C will carry it for their whole life
- 10 to 20 percent of those infected with hep C will develop cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver
- Up to five percent of those with hep C will contract liver cancer
- Roughly 7 in 10 people of those with hepatitis C will develop chronic liver disease
What are the Symptoms of Hep C?
The symptoms of hepatitis C depend entirely on how long the virus lasts and how intense it attacks the liver. In the majority of cases, people who contract hep C do not show any symptoms at all. In some cases the disease can turn into a chronic disease, at which point symptoms begin to manifest.
Acute hepatitis C: Short-term illness, occurs within the first 6 months of being exposed to the virus
Chronic hepatitis C: Most acute cases of hep C turn into chronic hepatitis C, a long-term illness that can lead to more serious issues with the liver
“Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. Approximately 70%-%80 of people with acute hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. Some people, however, can have mild to severe symptoms soon after being infected. If symptoms occur, the average time is 6-7 weeks after exposure, but this can range from 2 weeks to 6 months.”
According to the CDC, the symptoms of hep C when the do occur in a patient most commonly include:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Darkened urine
- Joint pain
- Jaundice (yellowed skin or eyes)
The symptoms of hepatitis C can be serious when they are exhibited, and the causes of hep C in the first place are usually associated with other detrimental situations – including drug injection and addiction. However, this does not meant that the virus has to be a daunting diagnosis for an individual struggling with both addiction and the virus.
According to Dr. Diana Sylvestre, writing for an addiction science journal, being diagnosed with hepatitis C simply means that health and addiction professionals can help a patient in other areas. In fact, the disease often does not exhibit dangerous symptoms. Instead, it is a symptom of drug use and abuse:
“A disease whose reputation is often worse than its reality, hepatitis C is usually benign. Most infected individuals do not experience symptoms requiring treatment, and roughly half of those treated will become free of detectable virus for an extended, perhaps permanent, period. Moreover, a growing body of data suggests that drug users can attain successful treatment outcomes, even when not completely abstinent. Addiction professionals belong in the forefront of prevention and management of this disease. We can assist our patients by helping them stabilize their lifestyles, correcting misperceptions about the disease, teaching prevention and health maintenance, promoting access to diagnosis and treatment, monitoring for treatment side effects, and providing encouragement to remain in treatment.”
What are the Causes of Hep C?
There are many different causes of the hepatitis C virus, though arguably the most common is the injection of illicit drugs. This is mentioned above and will be discussed in more detail below. However, this is not the only cause of hep C. IN fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a test for hep C if any of the following apply to you:
- You have received blood from someone who had the disease
- You have ever injected drugs
- You had either a blood transfusion or an organ transplant prior to 1992
- You were born between 1945 and 1965
- You have been on kidney dialysis on a long-term basis
- You have HIV
- You were born to someone with hepatitis C
What to Know About Hepatitis C and Substance Abuse
We mentioned above that one of the most common ways hepatitis C is transmitted is through the sharing of needles by injection drug users. This bears a more specific discussion, as there is a clear and dangerous relationship between substance abuse and hepatitis C. The virus is clearly contagious, but it can only be contracted through direct contact with infected blood – the most likely scenario where this can happen is the injection of heroin or methamphetamine.
“The Hepatitis C virus is very infectious and can easily spread when a person comes into contact with surfaces, equipment, or objects that are contaminated with the infected blood, even in amounts too small to see. The virus can survive on dry surfaces and equipment for up to six weeks. People who inject drugs can get Hepatitis C from needles and syringes, preparation equipment, fingers, and other surfaces. The best way to prevent Hepatitis C is to stop injecting. Drug treatment, including methadone or buprenorphine, can lower your risk for Hepatitis C since there will no longer be a need to inject.”
~ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In other words, injecting drugs like heroin and methamphetamine is directly correlated with a risk of contracting hepatitis C. This risk only increases over time as drug users become increasingly likely to engage in risky behavior, such as sharing injection syringes or needles and using drugs in unclean environments. As the CDC makes clear above, the very best way to prevent contracting hepatitis C is to stop injecting illicit drugs altogether. This is the only foolproof way to avoid the virus completely. However, the government agency also outlines several ways to reduce the risk of Hep C infection with continued drug use, in the case of being either unwilling or unable to stop using drugs:
- Avoid sharing equipment for injecting drugs
- Always use new syringes or needles
- Ensure that the surface is clean before putting down injection equipment (ideally with soap and water or alcohol)
- Wash your hands both before and after injection
- Do not handle others’ injection equipment
What to Know About New Breakthroughs that Can Cure Hepatitis C
Since there is no hepatitis C vaccine, many are left wondering whether there is a cure for the virus once it has been contracted. You are considered cured from hepatitis C once you are able to go six months without the detection of the virus in your body, at least once you have stopped treatment or taking medicine altogether. The most common approach to curing hepatitis C is by simultaneously taking interferon and ribavirin. Interferon is designed to boost your body’s immune system, which helps your system fight off the virus. In turn, ribavirin is designed specifically to fight the hep C virus. The two drug therapies combined caused the cure rate for hepatitis C to jump to roughly 50%. Ten years later, two additional drugs (boceprevir and telaprevir) were approved to inhibit the ability of the virus to self-replicate, pushing the cure rate up to 70%. However, it is important to note that the combination of all three of these drugs are associated with side effects.
“Acute infection can clear on its own without treatment in about 25% of people. If acute hepatitis C is diagnosed, treatment does reduce the risk that acute hepatitis C will become a chronic infection. There are several medications available to treat chronic hepatitis C, including new treatments that appear to be more effective and have fewer side effects than previous options.”
The most recent, and apparently most effective, treatment for hepatitis C is Zepatier, an anti-virus drug that combines the effects of previous drugs. This treatment requires a daily dosage of just the single drug, which both reduces the side effects of treatment and translates into a shorter treatment time. The treatment lasts 16 weeks, rather than the 48 weeks required of the interferon and ribavirin combination. The drug has seen a 95 percent success rate, and was approved by the FDA in 2015. Of course, this is not the only drug on the market designed to cure or treat hepatitis C. Other forms of anti-viral drugs include simeprevir, sofosbuvir, and ombitasvir.
Rather than getting bogged down in the detailed names here, you can find a complete list of currently approved FDA therapies to treat hepatitis C on the Food and Drug Administration website.
In short, hepatitis C treatment has reached the point where the virus can be cured in the vast majority of cases. If you find yourself infected with hep C, do not lose hope about your future – you can find the help that you need to get the virus treated and to avoid its long-term effects. While hep C treatment has not yet reached a 100% success rate, finding a cure is extremely likely.
This guide may hit closer to home for some than for others, particularly if you have struggled with injecting drugs and becoming addicted to these drugs in the past. If you have used these drugs and would like to know your options, you can request a free addiction assessment today in order to get the professional support that you need.
Ultimately, we are here to help anyone and everyone who struggles with addiction or dependence. If you contracted hepatitis C through injecting drugs, it may possibly be a sign of drug abuse. Getting an assessment can help you determine if your behaviors are indicative of addiction, dependence or abuse. If you still have questions about hepatitis C or about the new breakthroughs that can treat hep C, feel free to contact us.