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Hepatitis C and Diabetes: Is There a Link?

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Hepatitis C and Diabetes: Is There a Link?

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Inflammation means that the tissues are injured or infected. Hepatitis can damage the liver and affect how well it works. There are different types of hepatitis; one type, hepatitis C, is linked with diabetes. Read on to learn more about this liver condition.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis can be caused by a number of different factors, including toxins, certain medications, heavy alcohol use, and some autoimmune diseases. However, viruses are the most common cause of hepatitis.

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There are five main types of hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D, and E. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), “Hepatitis A and E are typically caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water. Hepatitis, B, C and D usually occur as a result of parenteral contact with infected body fluids.”

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is most commonly transmitted through exposure to blood from an infected person. How does that happen? Here’s what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says:

  • Sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment that is used to prepare and inject drugs.
  • Health care exposures, if health care professionals don’t follow the proper steps needed to prevent the spread of infection
  • Sex with an infected person
  • Birth — about 6% of infants born to infected mothers will get hepatitis C
  • Tattoos or body piercings done in unlicensed facilities or with nonsterile instruments
  • Sharing personal care items, such as blood glucose meters, razors, nail clippers, and toothbrushes
  • Blood transfusions and organ transplants, although the risk is very low

Hepatitis C can’t be spread by kissing, hugging, coughing, or sneezing, by sharing eating utensils, or by food or water.

Hepatitis C can be “acute,” meaning that it occurs within the first six months after being exposed to the virus. For some people, the illness is short-lived, but for most people, the acute infection leads to a chronic infection.

Chronic hepatitis C, if not treated, can cause liver damage, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and death.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

Many people who have the HCV don’t know that they’re infected because they don’t have any symptoms. Symptoms can take many years to develop. People who get symptoms tend to get them between two and 12 weeks after exposure to the virus. Typical symptoms include:

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Light-colored stools
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • Bruising
  • Upset stomach and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle aches

According to the American Liver Foundation, about 70% to 80% of people with an acute hepatitis C infection don’t have symptoms or show signs of the infection. However, most people with acute hepatitis C will go on to develop chronic hepatitis C.

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Who is at risk of getting hepatitis C?

People who have an increased risk of hepatitis C are those who:

  • Are exposed to infected blood (such as health care workers, emergency medical workers)
  • Have had tattoos or piercings in an unclean environment with unsterile equipment
  • Use or have used injected drugs
  • Have HIV
  • Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992
  • Received a blood product for clotting problems that was made before 1987
  • Have received hemodialysis long-term
  • Were born to a mother with HCV
  • Have or had a sexually transmitted disease

How is hepatitis C treated?

The type of treatment for hepatitis C is based on factors such as how much virus is in your body, the strain of HCV that you have, if you have liver damage, and other health conditions you have.

Acute hepatitis C might be treated with just getting rest, drinking a lot of fluids, eating healthfully, and avoiding alcohol.

With chronic hepatitis C, your doctor should advise you about the best type of treatment for you. This may include antiviral medications to clear the virus from your body. You might be prescribed one or several medications for 12 to 24 weeks or even longer. More serious complications from HCV may require a liver transplant.

What is the connection between diabetes and hepatitis C?

According to a study published in 2017 in the journal Critical Reviews in Eukaryotic Gene Expression, “Most studies have revealed that patients with HCV are at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes (T2D), compared with controls or patients with hepatitis B.”

And an article in the journal Diabetes Care published in 2006 states that the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) found that among people 40 years of age or older, “those with HCV infection were more than three times more likely than those without HCV infection to have type 2 diabetes.”

Hepatitis C can increase insulin resistance, a key risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes; HCV can also cause autoimmune disease, including type 1 diabetes. Plus, some therapies for hepatitis C, such as interferon alpha, are linked with causing diabetes.

If you have both diabetes and hepatitis C, your glycemic control may be worsened. Fortunately, getting treatment for hepatitis C can improve your diabetes control.

How can you prevent hepatitis C?

Unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. But you can take steps to lower your risk of getting hepatitis C.

  • Stop injecting illicit drugs if you use them. If you continue using them, don’t share needles or equipment with others.
  • If you are getting tattoos or body piercings, go to a reputable, licensed facility.
  • If you are a health care worker, follow safety precautions — that means wearing personal protective equipment and disposing of contaminated needles and lancets properly.
  • Practice safe sex — don’t engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners or with someone with an uncertain medical history.
  • If you have diabetes, don’t share blood glucose meters, lancets, lancing devices, or pen needles or insulin syringes with anyone else.

The American Diabetes Association advises people with diabetes to get the hepatitis B vaccine; talk with your provider to see if you should get the hepatitis A vaccine, as well, to help lower the chances of liver infection and inflammation.

For more information about hepatitis C, visit the American Liver Foundation’s website

Want to learn more about protecting your liver? Read “Preventing Fatty Liver (NAFLD)” and “Diabetes and NAFLD.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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