July 28th is World Hepatitis Day. Viral hepatitis is a serious risk for people with certain addictive behaviors.
Hepatitis and addiction: What you need to know
Hepatitis is a medical term for inflammation of the liver. While hepatitis can have many causes, most cases are caused by viruses. There are five hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D and E. If you use illegal drugs or chronically drink alcohol, then viral hepatitis should be on your radar.
For people using illegal drugs, depending on how you administer the drug, the risk of becoming infected with a hepatitis virus is increased. Both hepatitis B and C, which can lead to chronic liver disease, are bloodborne viruses. You can be exposed to these viruses by using a dirty needle to inject drugs or by using a dirty straw/rolled bill to snort cocaine or other drugs (snorting drugs can rupture the blood vessels in your nose allowing viruses to enter your bloodstream). If you’re not ready to quit, harm reduction techniques like not sharing your gear can help.
Alcohol, marijuana and certain opioid medications that contain acetaminophen can all damage the liver. Thinking about giving up booze? Learn about the benefits of quitting drinking. When a person with a damaged liver gets infected with a hepatitis virus, the symptoms, including further liver damage, can be much more severe.
The following opioid medications contain acetaminophen:
- Tylenol-Codeine #3
- Tylenol-Codeine #4
Now, let’s meet the different hepatitis viruses and discuss how people with addiction can protect themselves.
Hepatitis A (HAV)
Hepatitis A is transmitted from person-to-person by exposure to infected fecal matter. Eating contaminated food or beverage (for instance, a sick employee doesn’t wash their hands before preparing your meal) is the most common route of transmission although people can also become infected after close contact or sexual intercourse with an infected individual. Unlike hepatitis B or C, hepatitis A does not cause chronic infection, however, that does not mean HAV is harmless.
While not everyone infected with hepatitis A becomes sick, symptoms usually appear within 15-50 days after exposure and can last for several weeks. In rare cases, HAV can be fatal. Your risk for serious illness from HAV increases dramatically if you have chronic liver disease such as caused by hep B, hep C, alcohol use or obesity.
There is no cure for hepatitis A, so your best bet is prevention by getting vaccinated. Michigan is in the midst of an hepatitis A outbreak, so awareness and prevention are important. You can get vaccinated at Workit Health for free.
Hepatitis B (HBV)
Hepatitis B is transmitted via contact with infected blood and other bodily fluids. This contact can comes from sharing needles, having unprotected sex or otherwise having close contact with an infected person. The virus can also be transmitted from mother to baby during birth. Globally, hepatitis B is the leading cause of liver cancer, however, because of the HBV vaccine, which is given at birth, rates in the US are low. However, if you are a traveler, HBV is common throughout the world, including China. Check with the CDC and your provider before traveling to learn about your risk for HBV and other infectious diseases. Don’t know if you were vaccinated against hepatitis B as a baby? Your healthcare provider can easily find out.
Despite its rarity in the US, if your addictive behavior makes you high risk for either infection or more severe symptoms in the event of infection, you should get the Hepatitis B vaccine if you have not already.
Hepatitis C (HCV)
Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus like Hepatitis B, although sexual transmission is less common. Chronic infection occurs in 85 percent of patients and leads to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. There are four genotypes of hepatitis C each different from each other in some critical part of its biology. No vaccine currently exists for HCV, however, there are effective treatments that can cure chronic hepatitis C infection. Depending on what genotype you are infected with, your healthcare provider may prescribe you one of three new medications that can cure you in as little as 8 weeks.
Since there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, the best way to prevent infection is to eliminate contact with potentially infected blood. This includes changing your risky, addictive behaviors by either quitting or making your substance use safer. While quitting is best, if you choose to continue to use drugs or alcohol then try to moderate your consumption and make sure that you are using clean needles and other equipment. Do not share dirty needles, straws, or other supplies to stay safe.
Hepatitis D and E
These viruses are rare in the US. hepatitis D is a bloodborne virus that can only survive if a person is already infected with HBV. hepatitis E, like Hepatitis A, is transmitted by infectious fecal matter and is most commonly contracted from dirty water. These viruses are only of concern to travelers or those who are or will live abroad.