Hepatitis C (hep C) is a liver disorder caused by the bloodborne hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hep C can go undetected for years or even decades and may silently damage your liver, leading to serious health consequences.

It’s important to get tested and treated for hep C and to use safe practices if you engage in behaviors that put you at risk of contracting HCV.

People who use injectable drugs can come into contact with the blood of an HCV-positive person. Therefore, there’s a link between hep C and the increased use of opioid drugs.

The opioid epidemic is a current health crisis related to a large increase in opioid addiction. It can affect people who use prescription and nonprescription opioids, including heroin, which is an injectable drug.

U.S. data from 2019 showed that 10.1 million people misused prescription opioids in a calendar year, 1.6 million people had an opioid use disorder, and 745,000 had used heroin.

Opioid misuse has caused thousands of deaths each year. In 2019, 48,006 people using synthetic opioids died, and 14,480 died from using heroin. The United States declared the epidemic a public health emergency in 2017.

Addiction and death aren’t the only public health outcomes of this epidemic. Rates of hep C have increased at the same time.

Hep C is passed via blood-to-blood contact with someone who’s positive for HCV. Many people who use opioids inject them into their bodies, and the most common way hep C is passed in the United States is through shared needles and injection drug equipment.

HCV can live on objects for up to 6 weeks, which means it can be easily passed among those who share equipment for injectable drugs such as:

  • needles and syringes
  • preparation equipment
  • hands and fingers
  • surfaces that come into contact with someone else’s blood

Hep C rates in the United States tripled between 2009 and 2018. Seventy-two percent of hep C cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018 involved people who used injectable drugs.

The largest group impacted by rising hep C rates are those in their 20s and 30s, and many live in areas with higher levels of opioid use.

Additionally, the number of pregnant women with HCV became five times higher between 2000 to 2015. Sixty-eight percent of pregnant women with HCV also have an opioid use disorder. Though it’s rare, pregnant women can pass HCV to their babies during birth.

If left untreated, hep C can cause serious damage to your liver. Over time, you may develop or increase your risk for developing cirrhosis, liver cancer, or liver failure.

Since 2013, hep C-related deaths in the United States have surpassed 60 other infectious diseases combined, including HIV.

There are treatments available now that can cure a large percentage of infections. To avoid long-term side effects, it’s best to discuss treatment with your doctor as soon as you receive a diagnosis.

Some cases of hep C have no symptoms, so it’s important to get tested. A blood test can confirm the presence of HCV.

The CDC recommends that anyone over the age of 18 be tested for hep C, and you should get a blood test if you’re an adult or are pregnant. If you use injectable drugs, you should get tested for hep C more frequently. Four in 10 people with hep C don’t know that they have it.

Hep C treatment involves antiviral medications. It’s important to stick to the treatment regimen and attend follow-up doctor appointments and laboratory tests. Pregnant people can’t be treated for hep C during pregnancy, but doctors will monitor the baby and parent.

You’re vulnerable to HCV at any time, and if the virus naturally passes through the body, you can still get it again in the future.

Here are some ways to prevent contracting HCV:

  • Avoid contact with blood.
  • Seek help for injection drug use so that you can form a plan to quit.
  • Use new injection equipment every time.
  • Do not share injection equipment.
  • Clean your hands and the injected area with alcohol and water before and after injections.
  • Use a bandage to cover the injection site or apply pressure to the injection site to stop bleeding.

There may be resources in your area that provide sterile injection equipment, testing, and financial assistance for treatment.

Injectable drug use and hepatitis C are linked. It’s best to get tested regularly for hep C if you use injectable drugs. You can get hep C more than once — injecting safely will help you avoid future infections.

Pregnant people should be tested for hep C to avoid passing it to their children.

You can be treated for hep C with medication that can cure a large majority of cases and can prevent further damage to your liver.