Viral Hepatitis and Drug Use: What’s the Connection?

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Hepatitis

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Drug use can cause devastating problems. It can change a person’s brain and lead to addiction,  harm their body, and make it more likely for them to get an infection like viral hepatitis.

Viral hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver most commonly caused by the hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) viruses. Over time, if it isn’t medically treated, hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis—a serious, lifelong liver condition—and cancer.

Drug and alcohol use can increase the risk of getting hepatitis in two ways:

  1. When people inject drugs and share needles or other drug equipment. This can transfer viruses from one person to another, because bodily fluids like blood stay on the equipment in tiny amounts—even if the equipment is wiped “clean.”
  2. When drug use leads to poor judgment and risky behavior. Using drugs and alcohol can affect the choices a person makes. For example, it can lead to unsafe sex. This puts a person at risk for getting hepatitis from—or giving it to—someone else.

People can reduce their risk of acquiring, getting sick from, or passing on viral hepatitis by:

  • Not using drugs. Avoiding drug use reduces the chance of engaging in risky behaviors.
  • Getting tested. Anyone who injects drugs should get tested for hepatitis. People might not be aware of their infection and feel fine for years. That’s why testing is so important to help prevent the spread of hepatitis. 
  • Getting treatment for HBV and HCV. Doctors can prescribe medicines to help treat HBV and HCV infection. Anyone with HBV or HCV should seek medical care.
  • Getting treatment for a drug problem. Seeking treatment for drug use can help people reduce drug use and other risky behaviors.
  • Getting vaccinated. People can get a vaccine to prevent HBV infection. (There isn’t a vaccine for HCV yet, but scientists are working to develop one.)  You can ask your doctor if vaccination is a good idea for you.

Watch a short video about why drugs are so hard to quit.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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