Doctor holding speech bubble with HEPATITIS message

Hepatitis C is one of the most common bloodborne infections. More than 2 million Americans are estimated to be living with the virus, but the actual number may be much higher as many people don’t know when they have it.

What is it? Hepatitis C is a virus that is transmitted by infected blood and attacks the liver, causing inflammation. Many people don’t show symptoms of the infection, which is how it avoids detection – often for years. Eventually, the damage the infection causes to the liver can translate into symptoms like stomach pain or swelling, bleeding and bruising easily, yellowing skin or eyes and more.

How does it spread? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of hepatitis C have been rising among people ages 18-40 for years. Because the virus spreads through contaminated blood, individuals who use intravenous drugs have the highest risk of infection. Below are a couple of tips to help avoid contracting hep C:

  • Never share needles. Sharing or reusing needles or syringes significantly increases the risk of spreading hep C.
  • Don’t share personal items like razors to avoid exposure to infected blood.
  • Practice safe sex. It’s rare, but the infection can spread through sexual intercourse and the risk increases if you have another sexually transmitted disease.

Is it treatable? Although hep C is a serious condition, it can be cured with the proper treatment. There are some harmful misconceptions surrounding hep C and addiction that can be significant barriers for those in need of treatment. Here are some of the most common myths about the infection and addiction.

MYTH: Individuals living with addiction must be “clean” before hep C treatment.

FACT: There is no need to delay treating a hep C infection. Patients who still have illicit substances or alcohol in their system can benefit from treatment as much as any other group.

 MYTH: Substance users shouldn’t get treatment for hep C because they will likely be reinfected.

FACT: This is another harmful misconception. Data actually shows low rates of reinfection in individuals living with substance use disorder and treatment often improves their outlook on life, leading to improvement in addiction treatment as well.

 MYTH: Only a specialist can provide care for hep C.

FACT: Many providers can provide treatment for hep C, including CleanSlate. Unfortunately, people living with addiction often feel stigmatized by the health care system, so referral to a specialist for a disease possibly acquired by sharing needles can be a barrier to treatment. We treat patients for hep C as part of their regular addiction treatment plan, when needed, so they can receive care from professionals they trust and maintain continuity.

Because it can take years – even decades – for symptoms to show, it’s recommended that all adults get tested for the infection at least once in their lifetime, and those with increased risk should be screened regularly. At CleanSlate we know our patients are at higher risk, so we screen for hep C annually.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, CleanSlate is here to provide care without judgement. We know each patient has their own unique journey and we’re here to offer support. For more information or to find a location near you, call 833-505-HOPE or visit www.cleanslatecenters.com.

Phyllis Losikoff M.D.

Dr. Phyllis Losikoff, is Medical Director of Research and Development at CleanSlate and Founder and Director of CleanSlate’s HCV Treatment Program.