The link between hepatitis C and diabetes

Diabetes is on the rise in the United States. According to the American Diabetes Association, the number of people with diagnosed diabetes in the United States increased by almost 400 percent from 1988 to 2014.

Healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent many cases of type 2 diabetes. But poor lifestyle choices are only some of the risks for developing this condition.

The chronic form of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) has been shown to be a risk factor for the development of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. And people with diabetes are likely to have a more complicated course of chronic HCV.

The most common way to get the hepatitis C virus is through exposure to infected blood. This can happen by:

  • injecting drugs with a syringe previously used by an infected person
  • sharing a personal hygiene item, like a razor, used by an infected person
  • getting a tattoo or a body piercing with a needle that has infected blood within it

There is no vaccine to prevent HCV. So it’s important to know the risks of contracting the HCV virus, and how your health may be affected in the long-term.

Hepatitis is a condition that causes liver inflammation and can lead to liver damage. It’s often caused by a virus. The most common hepatitis viruses in the United States are:

Hepatitis C is of concern because about 75 to 85 percent of people who become infected with hepatitis C will develop the chronic form of the disease.

Chronic HCV can prevent the liver from performing its basic functions, including:

  • aiding in digestion
  • normal blood clotting
  • protein production
  • nutrient and energy storage
  • preventing infection
  • waste elimination from bloodstream

Since chronic HCV can impact the many functions that your liver performs, the disease can be detrimental to your health. Chronic HCV can also increase your chances of developing other problems such as immune system disorders, heart disease, and diabetes. Up to one-third of people with chronic HCV have type 2 diabetes, and diabetes is linked to worsening cases of HCV.

You can develop diabetes if the cells in your body have difficulty absorbing blood sugar, or glucose. Glucose is a source of energy that’s used by every tissue in the body. Insulin is what helps glucose get into the cells.

HCV may increase the body’s insulin resistance, which is a primary risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. If you have insulin resistance, glucose has a harder time getting to where the body needs it.

Finally, autoimmune problems associated with HCV may also increase the risk for developing type 1 diabetes.

If you have preexisting diabetes, you are at risk for a more aggressive course of HCV. This can include increased scarring and cirrhosis, poorer response to medication, and increased likelihood for developing liver cancer.

Having diabetes interferes with the normal function of your immune system. This can also decrease your body’s ability to fight off infections, including HCV.

All cases of chronic HCV virus start off as a short-term, acute infection. Some people have symptoms during the acute infection and others do not. About 15 to 25 percent of people clear the infection on their own without treatment. The rest develop chronic hepatitis, the ongoing form of the virus.

Chronic HCV can eventually make it difficult for the liver to function. This, along with other factors like increasing insulin resistance, can lead to the development of diabetes.

If you have diabetes and HCV, treatment can be more challenging. The body’s cells can become more insulin resistant with HCV, so you may need more medication to keep blood sugar levels within target. If you’re taking pills for diabetes, you may need to be switched to injectable insulin if your diabetes becomes too difficult to control.

Having both diabetes and HCV may cause other complications. One major risk is advanced liver disease, called cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis also increases the body’s insulin resistance, which can make diabetes management even more difficult.

Advanced forms of liver disease can cause liver failure, which can be fatal. Liver transplants are commonly needed for cirrhosis. A recent study has shown that people with both cirrhosis and diabetes have an increased risk for gallstones and urinary tract infections.

Chronic HCV and diabetes affect one another. HCV is a risk factor for developing diabetes. Having diabetes raises the likelihood of increased complications related to chronic HCV infection.

If you have chronic HCV, your doctor may recommend regular screenings for diabetes. If you have diabetes, the best way to prevent many of the complications is by following your treatment plan.