For many, when the topic of sharing needles is mentioned, HIV comes to mind immediately; that is definitely one virus that can be contracted by sharing needles, along with a variety of other blood-borne fungal, bacterial, and viral infections. Some do not consider the danger of being infected with the hepatitis C virus (Hep C or HCV), which is more common than you think.
The lack of awareness on Hep C is what makes it more dangerous.
Hep C, which causes inflammation of the liver, represents more than 200,000 cases annually in the United States (US). Since HCV causes liver inflammation, it can lead to serious damage to the liver. It can last for several months or even years, especially if the complications are not treated.
About 2.4 million people in the US were living with HCV between 2013 to 2016, and studies reported that Black people were twice as likely to die from it in comparison to white people.
Hep C complications, particularly chronic and later stage complications, include scarring of the liver, or cirrhosis, which may occur 20 to 30 years after a Hep C infection.
Liver cancer and liver failure are also other complications; a small number of people with Hep C may develop liver cancer, while advanced cases of cirrhosis can cause the liver to stop functioning.
Even more unfortunate, chronic liver disease is a leading cause of death among Black people ages 45 to 64.
With sharing needles, you risk having contact with the blood of an infected person, and this happens to be the most common cause of HCV infection.
Other causes of HCV include reusing the injected instruments, the infection mother to baby during pregnancy, body piercing and tattooing, sharing of toothbrushes, razors, and scissors, transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products, and unprotected sex.
If you have shared needles in the past, or have a connection to any of the mentioned causes, how can you tell if you have Hep C?
During the first six months of infection, also known as the acute stage, many individuals may only experience mild illness symptoms, if any symptoms at all. During the chronic stage, symptoms include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Accumulation of fluid and swelling of the abdominal cavity (also known as ascites)
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Light-colored stools or dark-colored urine
- Loss of appetite
- Jaundice (or yellow discoloration of the eyes and skin)
- Star-shaped vein pattern on a swollen belly
Most importantly, seeking medical attention and getting tested is encouraged, as someone with Hep C can go years, even decades, without feeling sick or experiencing the listed symptoms.
During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, those with Hep C may wonder if they should trust receiving the vaccine, but it is recommended; this is also the case with those who have developed cirrhosis.
Medical specialists confirm that having Hep C does not put one at greater risk for severe cases of COVID and that the risk of complications from COVID or the vaccine are about the same as those in the general population.
So do not delay getting screened and checked for Hep C if you know you have been at risk.