Can You Contract Hepatitis C By Sharing A Drug-Snorting Straw?

By John Lavitt 08/01/16

A recent study designed to address hep C in pregnant women uncovered important data that could help prevent the spreading of the virus.

Can You Contract Hepatitis C By Sharing A Drug-Snorting Straw?

According to research published in the August issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the sharing of snorting straws when using drugs like cocaine and heroin can potentially lead to transmission of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Although the transmission of the virus was previously considered to be limited to injection drug use, it turns out that blood transferred through the mucous membranes and into a snorting straw can open the deadly door to infection as well. 

Originally designed to address HCV in pregnant women, the University of Tennessee Medical Center study could now lead to the advent of additional medical warnings and a revision of HCV prevention protocols. The research team anonymously surveyed 189 HCV-infected pregnant women at an obstetric high-risk clinic. Many of the women admitted that they snorted drugs and shared straws. Beyond basic sexual contact, 15% of the women reported snorting drugs and sharing straws as their only other HCV risk factor. By assessing the modes of potential HCV transmission, the team realized that snorting straws was most likely the cause behind the infection of many of the women. 

Although the more common transmission routes are intravenous drug use, blood transfusion, organ transplant, careless tattooing, and the exchange of bodily fluids during sex, snorting drugs with a straw should now be included as a legitimate risk. Other countries like Canada have considered snorting straws to be a risk factor since the 1990s. Given the deadly nature of the virus, all potential risk factors need to be highlighted. The HCV virus attacks the liver, leading in many cases to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death.

As a maternal-fetal medicine specialist with High Risk Obstetrical Consultants at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, the head physician of the study Dr. Craig Towers comes in contact with many pregnant women who abuse opioid drugs. Such abuse contributes to the tragedy of the high number of babies born withdrawing from drugs in the Appalachian region. Many of the women believe that by snorting the drugs, they were avoiding any real danger. Astounded, they questioned Towers: “I can get infected by sharing a straw?”

Towers explained how. "It was not something that they comprehended … And we find a bunch of women who are hepatitis C-positive who don't even give a history of drug abuse. If we don't find it and treat it, we're going to have a lot of people with liver problems in the next 10-20 years … I really, really want all substance users, not just pregnant users, to know snorting drugs—any drugs—with a straw and sharing it is another bad risk factor.”

The study also reported that nearly one-quarter of the snorting straws confiscated by local police departments were found to have enough blood on them to transmit HCV. Given the rugged makeup of the hepatitis C virus and its ability to survive externally for an extended period of time (up to three weeks), such a form of transmission seems likely.

For more information on the formidable nature of the virus, please see The Fix interview "On the Front Lines Against Hep C" with Tricia Lupole from HCVets. 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.