Getting treatment for hepatitis C in addiction recovery

Getting Treatment for Hepatitis C in Addiction Recovery

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Millions of Americans have hepatitis C, putting their lives and long-term health at risk. Here are the answers to many of your questions about getting treatment for hepC.

Hepatitis C has a scary sound to it, but many people don’t know much about it. The “hepat-” prefix means liver, so any time you see it in a medical term you know that it is referring to that organ. The “-itis” suffix means inflammation. So “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. There are three common types of hepatitis: A, B, and C. Medical researchers have created vaccines for hepatitis A and B, but so far there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. That means our main defenses against hepC are preventing transmission in the first place, or treating it after infection. 

Is hepatitis C dangerous?

Hepatitis C can be dangerous. Left untreated, it increases the risk of many diseases and conditions and can lead to serious liver damage. This is a serious concern, because you have to know that you have hepC to treat it. But many of the people currently infected with hepatitis C don’t know they have it. When they first become infected, many people don’t have any symptoms. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be dangers or complications down the line! It’s important to get tested for hepatitis C so that it can be caught and treated before it has done irreparable damage, like caused cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Is hepatitis C common?

It’s pretty common. The CDC estimates that between 2.4-3.9 million Americans are living with hepatitis C. Infection rates of hepatitis C have been going up every year, so that number may be higher. This means that around 1% of Americans have hepC. 

Can hepatitis C be treated?

Yes! There is a novel class of medications called DAAs (direct-acting antivirals) to treat hepC.  These DAA medications are oral tablets, and they have cure rates of 95%. Most people who follow the prescribed treatment get down to an undetectable viral load in 8-12 weeks.

These medications have only been in common use for the past 10 or so years, so many people still think of hepatitis C as untreatable. But don’t be mislead by this misunderstanding! Hepatitis C is now very treatable!

How do I get treatment for hepatitis C?

First, you will need to be tested. Your healthcare provider can help you arrange a blood test. If your test comes back positive, talk to your healthcare provider to determine which of the current direct-acting antivirals is best for you. 

If you are a member of Workit Clinic for alcohol or opioids, your regular Workit Clinician can order a blood test for you at a local lab, prescribe hepC medication, and electronically send the prescription to your local pharmacy. 

Who is at risk for hepatitis C?

The CDC recommends all adults be tested for hepatitis C, because so few of the people living with it realize they’ve been infected. The people at greatest risk of hepatitis C infection are:

  • People with a sexual partner who has hepatitis C.
  • IV drug users (even if they only used rarely).
  • Infants born to mothers who have hepatitis C.
  • People who had blood transfusions, blood products, or organ donations before June, 1992, when sensitive tests for hepC were introduced for blood screening.
  • People who get piercings or tattoos with non-sterile equipment.
  • People who have shared toothbrushes, razors, and other personal items with someone who has hepatitis C.

I’m worried about stigma. Will people know I’ve used opioids if they find out I have hepatitis C?

The list above of people at highest risk of contracting hepatitis C shows that there are several ways of getting infected. It’s true that IV drug use is the most common risk factor for contracting hepC, but it’s not the only one. There are many people with hepatitis C who have no idea how they got it. Don’t let your worry about other people’s perceptions put your health at risk! And your healthcare provider is bound by HIPAA (and professional ethics) to keep your medical information confidential. 

Will my doctor refuse to treat me if I drink or use drugs again after I start treatment for hepatitis C?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine says, “State of the art medical treatment for HCV should be accessible and available to all current and former drug users with chronic HCV infection. Active alcohol and/or drug use should not in itself exclude any person from receiving treatment for their HCV infection. The outcomes for patients who continue to use alcohol and/or drugs are comparable to those who do not.”

If possible, it is recommended that you not drink or use drugs if you have hepatitis C (to protect your liver). But you should receive treatment no matter what.

Hepatitis C is a scary-sounding condition, and it can have serious consequences. But a hepC infection can now be tested for with a simple blood test and treated by a course of pills. If you’re one of the millions of Americans infected with hepatitis C, get tested, get treated, and get cured!

Alaine Sepulveda is a content strategist in recovery from alcohol. She believes that engaging people and sharing stories with them allows us to spread knowledge, and to help others in the path to recovery. She holds an MA in Communication Studies from New Mexico State University.

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