Hepatitis C (HCV) is a widespread virus that can lead to chronic liver problems. Some people are turning to marijuana, or cannabis, to manage the unpleasant side effects associated with HCV and HCV medications.

Is this treatment right for you? Learn more about the benefits and risks of cannabis use.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that attacks the liver. It’s transmitted through infected blood, often through sharing needles during drug use. It can also be transmitted through:

  • tattoo needles
  • the birthing process (from an infected mother to their baby)
  • blood transfusions
  • sexual contact (rarely)

People infected with HCV may have no symptoms for months, years, or even decades. The condition is typically diagnosed when liver symptoms lead to complications and medical testing.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group that works to reform marijuana laws, explains that many people with HCV use cannabis to ease their general symptoms from the virus. Cannabis is also used to ease the nausea associated with other HCV treatments. This practice is relatively popular, but research results have been mixed. It’s unclear if marijuana is helpful overall and if there are any overall risks.

What’s the relationship between hepatitis C and marijuana?

Marijuana alone doesn’t treat an HCV infection, and it doesn’t treat the complications that lead to liver disease and cirrhosis. Instead, the drug may be particularly effective at reducing nausea associated with the medications used to treat the virus. Marijuana can be:

  • inhaled by smoking
  • ingested by taking cannabis pills or edibles
  • absorbed under the tongue as a tincture
  • vaporized

A few studies have credited marijuana use with stricter adherence to treatment protocols. These studies have presented the idea that reducing the unpleasant side effects makes the antiviral medications more tolerable. This way, more people will finish the full course. In turn, people experience better outcomes.

Research on this topic has mixed outcomes. The Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology reports that marijuana use among people infected with HCV is prevalent. The study also showed that people who included the drug in their overall treatment plan didn’t necessarily stick to the plan more closely than their counterparts who didn’t take the drug.

Using marijuana didn’t influence liver biopsies or impact the “hard outcomes” of the antiviral treatment. At the same time, taking the drug didn’t necessarily hurt anything. The study didn’t find any evidence that smoking or taking cannabis pills does any additional damage to the liver, despite what previous research had suggested.

Other treatment options for hepatitis C

Marijuana isn’t legal in all states. This is the case even when it’s used for medical management of HCV. What’s the good news? Advances in the field are improving medications and lessening treatment durations.

Antiviral medications are usually a first line of defense against HCV. Traditional courses of medication take 24 to 72 weeks. This therapy can give you flu-like symptoms, anemia, or neutropenia. New combinations of antiviral medications may shorten treatment duration to just 12 weeks. It also significantly lessens the most uncomfortable side effects.

If you experience nausea in response to your medication, your doctor can prescribe anti-nausea drugs. These can include:

  • Zofran
  • Compazine
  • Phenergan
  • Trilafon
  • Torecan

If your nausea keeps you from taking pills, you can find some that are available as suppositories.

You may also be able to control your nausea through dietary and lifestyle changes:

  • Keep a food diary to track any triggers.
  • Eat small, frequent meals.
  • If your nausea is worse in the morning, try keeping some food next to your bed and getting up more slowly.

Risk factors for hepatitis C

As with most other drugs or treatments, there are certain risks with the use of cannabis. Marijuana may cause dizziness. It can also increase your risk of bleeding, affect your blood sugar levels, and lower your blood pressure.

Marijuana can also affect your liver. Whether or not marijuana makes HCV liver disease worse is still up for debate.

Clinical Infectious Diseases published a study in 2013 about the connection between cannabis use and worsening liver symptoms from HCV. In the group of nearly 700 people, the median use of marijuana was seven joints per day. In the end, this study found no significant link between marijuana smoking and liver fibrosis. For every 10 additional joints a person smoked per week over the median, their chance of being diagnosed with cirrhosis increased only slightly.

A 2006 study published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology shares that people with HCV who use marijuana adhere more closely to their treatment protocols. Their conclusion is that any "potential benefits of a higher likelihood of treatment success appear to outweigh risks."

Still, not all researchers agree. More work needs to be done in this area to assess the benefits and risks further.

Speaking with your doctor

There aren’t many studies about marijuana as a treatment for HCV symptoms and drug side effects. Still, the information that’s currently out there suggests that using the drug can be helpful in some cases. Always speak with your doctor before using the marijuana and other drugs.

If you think cannabis might be a useful drug to add to your treatment plan, check in with your doctor. You’ll need to find out if the medicinal use of marijuana is legal in your state. Your doctor might be able to offer you some alternatives to try, such as Zofran, if nausea is making your current treatment plan difficult to follow.