Hepatitis C and Diabetes Risk

Hepatitis C and Diabetes Risk

Hepatitis C is associated with an increased risk of another serious disease—diabetes. Here’s what you need to know.

It’s estimated that over 70 million people in the world have hepatitis C, a chronic viral infection that causes inflammation in the liver. This infection is often asymptomatic, causing no noticeable symptoms until years later, when patients begin showing the signs of liver damage. Nearly 400,000 people worldwide die each year from complications related to hep C. These complications include cirrhosis (severe scarring of the liver that leaves the organ unable to function normally), liver failure and liver cancer.

In addition to liver damage, hep C is associated with an increased risk of several other diseases and conditions. Here, we’ll be looking at the association between hep C and an increased risk of diabetes.

What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder where the body is no longer able to make insulin (or adequate amounts of insulin) or is unable to use the insulin it does make; insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas, and needed to metabolize glucose (blood sugar), the body’s main source of energy. People who are diabetic have elevated levels of glucose in the blood, which can damage the blood vessels throughout the body. This can result in a number of serious complications—kidney disease, eye problems, foot ulcers and nerve damage, to name a few. People with diabetes are also at a much higher risk for heart disease and stroke.

Hep C and type 2 diabetes
The most common form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes, which occurs when the body becomes insulin resistant—unable to use insulin, and/or unable to make enough insulin. Healthcare researchers do not fully understand the relationship between hep C and type 2 diabetes. What they do know is that people with hep C are more likely to have type 2 diabetes, as well as other related problems, including insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Having type 2 diabetes is known to accelerate the damage caused by hep C, and can reduce the effectiveness of hep C treatment.

There is an upside, though: some research has shown that patients who have hep C and type 2 diabetes see improved blood glucose control during treatment for hep C and after successfully clearing the HCV infection.

Hep C and type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes occurs when an autoimmune response by the body attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Once these cells are destroyed, the body is no longer able to produce insulin. Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age, but most people with the condition were diagnosed as children or young adults. While the exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, it is believed to be caused by genetics and environmental triggers, including viral infections.

Research suggests that there is an association between hep C infection and type 1 diabetes, but this association hasn’t been confirmed. However, a specific type of hep C treatment called interferon α—which was the main treatment before newer antiviral drugs became available—may trigger type 1 diabetes in people who are predisposed, as well as exacerbate other autoimmune disorders and dysfunctions.

Protecting your health
If you have hepatitis C, see a healthcare provider for treatment. There are hep C treatments available that can cure the infection in 90 percent or more of patients. Your healthcare provider can also determine if you are diabetic or at risk for diabetes, and help you either treat the condition or lower your risk.

Remember that it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which can both lessen the impact of hepatitis C and reduce your risk of diabetes. A healthy lifestyle includes eating well, getting regular exercise and avoiding unhealthy habits—particularly tobacco products and alcohol, which cause further damage to the body and worsen complications from hep C and diabetes, as well as raise the risk of other health complications.

Medically reviewed in February 2021.

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