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Hepatitis C Rates Have Tripled Due to the Opioid Crisis

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Rates of opioid abuse in the United States have risen dramatically in recent years, and now a new, related problem is coming to light. Hepatitis C infections tripled in the last five years primarily due to the rise in people injecting heroin and sharing contaminated needles, according to a recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even scarier? The CDC estimates that rates are actually much higher—about 34,000 new infections a year—and that many people don't know they have it.

Hepatitis C is a viral disease that damages the liver. In many people, it shows no symptoms at first and those who do notice something mainly experience fatigue, nausea, and loss of appetite—all symptoms common to other milder illnesses, which means it could quickly be dismissed. People are often diagnosed once the liver is so damaged that their skin and the whites of their eyes begin to turn yellow. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there's no vaccine for hepatitis C and it can be fatal if not treated. In fact, the disease now kills more people in the United States than every other infectious disease combined, according to CDC data from 2016.

The spike in new cases of the deadly disease, especially those in people under age 30, is directly tied to the opioid epidemic and the abuse of prescription painkillers, the CDC reported.

"These new infections are most frequently among young people who transition from taking prescription pills to injecting heroin, which has become cheaper and more easily available in some cases," as John Ward, M.D., an author of the new report and director of the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC, told CNN. "In turn, many—most, in some communities—people who inject drugs become infected with hepatitis C." (Read one woman's story about how she became an IV heroin addict after taking prescription pain pills.)

While sharing dirty needles is the most common way hepatitis C is transmitted, it's possible to get it from having unprotected sex or using something contaminated with blood like a razor or toothbrush. Pregnant mothers can pass it on to their babies. And a few cases have been reported from unhygienic piercings or tattoos.

Worried about your personal risk? There's a simple blood test that can tell you if you've been infected, but to avoid infection in the first place, you should always use protection during sex, and please keep these facts in mind before taking prescription painkillers.

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