When it comes to diseases passed via drugs, chances are the first that comes to mind is HIV. And while HIV is certainly a gargantuan concern, there are other serious conditions that can be passed via injected drugs as well.

One of the most common conditions spread by those who use injected drugs is Hepatitis, either B or C. Hepatitis is a liver condition and the symptoms are the same no matter which type you contract. The condition causes irritation and swelling of the liver, and often causes jaundice, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, fever, vomiting and other various symptoms. The symptoms may occur right away or they can take years to show up. In some cases, hepatitis is a short-term condition. In others, though, it’s a lifelong disease that needs to be managed; it can turn into serious, potentially fatal, liver disease.

How is Hepatitis Spread?

While the symptoms and outcome of hepatitis are the same no matter which strain is contracted, there are some fundamental differences in how hepatitis is spread. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with blood and certain body fluids, often through using dirty needles or sharing needles to use drugs, but also through having unprotected sex with an infected person. Hepatitis C is also spread via blood and fluids through needles, but it is rarely spread via sexual contact.

In fact, Hepatitis C is extremely common among users of IV drugs; by some estimates, nearly 90 percent of all intravenous drug users have the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 60 percent of all new cases of Hepatitis C are among those who inject drugs. When IV drugs are injected, infected blood enters the syringe plunger; if the needle is reused without being sterilized those pathogens are shot into the bloodstream of the second user, thus causing infection.

It’s not only needles that can lead to infection, though. If other paraphernalia is used for drugs and encounters blood or bodily fluids, it can become infected and spread disease. For example, a straw or other utensil that is used to aid the snorting of a drug can become infected with blood-borne pathogens that will spread to a second user.

Protecting Yourself

The best way to protect yourself from contracting any strain of Hepatitis is to avoid using any type of intravenous drug and practice safe sex. In the case of Hepatitis B, you can seek a vaccine to provide immunity to the disease; the vaccine is standard for children under age 18 and highly recommended for homosexual males, intravenous drug users and those who live with those who have Hepatitis B.

There is no vaccine against Hepatitis C, though, so it’s necessary to take precautions to avoid spreading the disease. Some of the things you can do include:

  • Use a clean needle every time you use drugs. It’s possible to purchase clean needles from pharmacies without a prescription in some areas or participate in a needle exchange program. Many major cities have these programs, which allow drug users to exchange their dirty and used needles for sterile ones without any repercussions.
  • Don’t share anything that you use to inject drugs. This includes the syringe, the tourniquet, cotton, water and the cooker. Keep your own materials as sterile and clean as possible.
  • Sterilize needles that you must share or re-use. Rinse the syringe with clean water, and use bleach to thoroughly disinfect the syringe, plunger and needle. Bleach is best, but if it is not available, use rubbing alcohol, or worst case, hard alcohol (like vodka) to sterilize the needle.
  • Properly dispose of used needles to prevent infecting others.
  • Carefully sterilize the injection site before using drugs. This is done to prevent bacteria and pathogens on the skin from potentially contacting the needle and entering your bloodstream. Take care that your sterile needle does not come in contact with potentially contaminated surfaces, such as tables or counters, before injections.
  • Practice safe sex. Using drugs may lower your inhibitions and increase your libido, so take necessary precautions such as using condoms to prevent the spread of Hepatitis through sexual contact.
  • Don’t share anything that could potentially have infected blood on it. This means personal items, such as razors and toothbrushes, as well as the items used for tattoos and piercings.

Again:  the absolute best way to avoid contracting a hepatitis virus is to avoid using IV drugs, practice safe sex and get the Hepatitis B vaccine. If you have a drug problem, you can get help. Talk with a qualified medical or rehabilitation provider to learn your options and develop a plan to get off of drugs. Taking steps to get clean now can prevent a serious disease in addition to the harmful effects of the drugs themselves and help you live a long, healthy and fulfilling life.