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Medical Cannabis and Hepatitis C

Elderly woman visiting sick husband

Hepatitis C can cause liver damage for years before diagnosis. While marijuana can ease medication symptoms, some research suggests that the endocannabinoid system could be key to healing the organ.

It sounds surprising, but many people with hepatitis C may not realize they have it. With hepatitis C virus (HCV) on the state list of 21 qualifying conditions, this is a good time for the increasing number of Ohio residents at risk to pursue a definitive diagnosis.

Cannabis can sometimes be used to relieve symptoms and to mitigate the side effects of the lengthy drug regimen. While medical marijuana is not a cure for hepatitis C, research does suggest that the endocannabinoid system in the liver plays a role in both exacerbating and healing damage.

Hepatitis C Basics

Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by a virus, which can either manifest as a mild illness for a few weeks or become a lifelong condition. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccination for the HCV, although recent developments have led to a treatment program that is 90% effective.

About 3 million people in the United States live with chronic hepatitis C, and most do not realize they have the condition. The 17,000 new cases every year usually occur due to blood exposure, typically from sharing needles or syringes when injecting drugs. Health care providers can also be susceptible to contracting hepatitis C through needlestick injuries.

Less common causes include shared razors, sexual contact, or unhygienic tattooing or piercing practices. Infants have a 6 in 100 chance of being born positive if their mother has the virus.

Although blood transfusions commonly caused the condition before 1992, screening measures have virtually eliminated this danger. Despite misconceptions, touching, sneezing, or ingesting food and water cannot spread the disease.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

Acute hepatitis C occurs within the first six months of exposure, and in 75-85% of cases leads to the chronic condition, which has devastating consequences for the body. The infection can cause cirrhosis and/or liver cancer, eventually proving fatal for many. The remaining 15-25% of patients, for unknown reasons, clear the virus without treatment.

Chronic hepatitis C can occur with no symptoms, although in some cases fever, fatigue, nausea, jaundice or joint pain do appear. Many people are infected without realizing it, and develop liver issues over several decades. Patients may end up needing a liver transplant or may pass away from the damage.

Cannabis for Hepatitis C Sufferers

When it comes to HCV, medical marijuana is typically suggested as a way to temporarily relieve symptoms of the disease or to manage side effects associated with pharmaceutical regimens. The medications can have side effects like nausea, aches, and poor appetite, which cannabis can improve.

HCV is treatable for most patients, though medication quality has varied. A recent year-long treatment involved ribavirin pills and interferon injections, with associated anemia, depression, and flu-like symptoms. A 2006 report suggested that marijuana might help these patients complete the full regimen.

More updated and effective treatments are now available, and some take only about eight weeks with fewer side effects. Still, the major expense of these regimens — easily tens of thousands of dollars — mean that insurance might only cover the sickest patients, possibly leaving the rest reliant on marijuana to manage their condition.

Research on HCV and Medical Marijuana

Although cannabis is not considered a cure for hepatitis C, researchers have begun to investigate the relationship between CBD and HCV. Some initial studies convinced researchers that marijuana could exacerbate liver damage, as the substance affects the organ’s endocannabinoid system by upregulating CB1 receptors, which increases inflammation.

However, additional research has shown that the activation of CB2 receptors in the liver actually inhibits or even reverses the fibrogenesis that characterizes liver damage, which has encouraged scientists to focus on clarifying the function of these receptors, as well as demonstrating outcomes among patients with liver damage.

The results so far have been encouraging. In one review of the available science, marijuana users showed a decreased prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A study in Liver International suggested that drinkers who used cannabis had significantly lower odds of developing liver disease. And a French study focusing on patients with both HCV and HIV showed that regular pot use was associated with a lower risk of fatty liver disease for these patients.

On the whole, the research suggests that the endocannabinoid system within the liver plays an important role in regulating damage to the organ. It’s possible that further research could recommend medical marijuana as a way to stave off the cirrhosis associated with HCV fatalities, but there is not currently a consensus on this point. Patients should be advised that cannabis is not a cure for the virus.

Contact a Doctor

If you are undergoing or plan to undergo a hepatitis C treatment plan, and are worried about managing side effects of the medication, we encourage you to consult with the doctors at the Lakewood Medical Clinic. We may be able to provide you with a recommendation as part of a holistic treatment plan for hepatitis C.