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Infections (Other Than HIV) That IV Drug Users Contract: Hepatitis, Osteomyelitis, Cellulitis

Kitty is a registered nurse. She uses what she has learned on the job to inspire and encourage others to take control of their health.

It's sad but true that many IV drug users wind up on the streets, and open themselves up to various healthcare problems.

It's sad but true that many IV drug users wind up on the streets, and open themselves up to various healthcare problems.

IV Drug Use: Ah...But There's More!

IV drug use is, unfortunately, a common theme amongst today's drug addicts. Many of them know the consequences of their actions—including the two big ones: jail and death. Some even know the harsh reality of allowing the drugs to take over their lives—losing their jobs, loved ones, vehicles, and even becoming homeless. But even the loss of their dignity and health may not prevent them from continuing to use IV drugs.

What happens to their health in the meantime? A large majority of IV drug users do not realize that not only can a person easily overdose on IV drugs, they can just as easily contract various nasty diseases. Quite a few IV drug users will end up in the hospital for infections they might have never known existed. Believe it or not, these infections can be so severe that they can kill you if not treated in time and properly by medical professionals. Here's the deal on yet another con to using drugs intravenously.

Pie Chart showing IV drug use as the number one cause of Hep C infection.

Pie Chart showing IV drug use as the number one cause of Hep C infection.

We Think of HIV, But There's Also Hepatitis C

With the act of "shooting up" with needles into one's skin, muscle tissue and veins, a person is exposing themselves to bacteria and viruses. When we think of what viruses an IV drug user can contract, many of us have the letters HIV pop up in our minds. However, we forget Hepatitis C is also a virus that can be contracted through a blood transfer. This means if a drug user is sharing a dirty needle from another drug user who has Hepatitis C, he or she can contract the disease by introducing the infected person's blood to their own.

If Hepatitis C becomes a chronic disease—in 75-85% of all known cases, it does—the IV drug user might find him or herself visiting the hospital quite often...or find him or herself very ill. Hepatitis C affects one's liver mainly, which causes all sorts of ailments including intense stomach pain, jaundice (when one's skin turns yellow), and fatigue. Chronic Hepatitis C can lead to major liver diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver and even liver cancer. Quite a few people with Hepatitis C end up having to do chemotherapy in the end stages of their disease.

So if you or someone you know is an IV drug user, be reminded that you or that person is putting themselves at risk of contracting a deadly disease—Hep C. Unfortunately many IV drug addicts don't care enough to avoid the disease so at least encourage them to visit the local Health Department to acquire clean needles to use. Remind them not to share needles with anyone.

An x-ray showing a needle that has broken off and lodged itself into the tissue of an IV drug user's arm.

An x-ray showing a needle that has broken off and lodged itself into the tissue of an IV drug user's arm.

Infections of the Skin

In addition to exposing oneself to a number of blood-acquired viruses, IV drug users can also acquire infections in their skin. How does this happen? Think of it this way - any time there is a break in our skin we are exposing ourselves to bacteria, fungus and many types of microbes in general. What do you think happens when someone injects a drug via a needle? They are breaking the skin, therefore breaking their shield that keeps infections out. So when a needle plunges into a person's skin, they are also putting their various layers of skin at risk of infection. This happens often with IV drug users, especially when they are not using clean needles or are not caring for themselves hygienically.

What types of skin infections can an IV drug addict acquire? Cellulitis, abscesses, botulism, tetanus, and septic thrombophlebitis among others. They might find themselves in the hospital with nasty skin ulcers that are infected with MRSA (a very serious, hard-to-treat bacterial infection that requires days to weeks worth of antibiotic therapy). A lot of IV drug users who acquire these skin infections find themselves in the hospital and stuck there for sometimes weeks at a time! This is because often the infection is so advanced that antibiotic therapy has to be given intravenously for 4-6 weeks in severe cases, and the hospitals are required to administer these medications to IV drug users for monitoring purposes. This means they will not put a central line or peripherally inserted central line (more simply put an IV that will last longer than your normal IV in the hospital) and then send the IV drug user home for fear that they will use the line to inject drugs. Not to mention, the person's skin may look and smell disgusting as well as the possibility of the infected area swelling up substantially. If they don't care about their health, they might care about their appearance to others.

What happens if an IV drug user acquires a skin infection like cellulitis and doesn't have it treated? The infection can enter the underlying tissue and eat away at the tissue, and it can also travel to a person's blood causing a serious infection called sepsis. Sepsis is life threatening. It can also cause infection in the bone which we will discuss in detail below...

Infection of the Bone

As mentioned above, IV drug users put themselves at risk of developing infections in the skin, tissue and even the bone. Infection of the bone is called osteomyelitis and happens more often than you might think. How does this happen, you might be wondering. Osteomyelitis can develop when an infection spreads through the bloodstream and enters the bone. This happens sometimes with IV drug users from exposure to dirty needles and/or in combination with poor hygiene. Once that bacteria enters the bone, it propagates and causes an infection in the bone known as osteomyelitis. Sometimes osteomyelitis can be caused from an infected wound in the skin leading down into the underlying tissue and bone. This is when we can see nasty skin ulcers over top of the infected bone.

As you might imagine, osteomyelitis can be very painful. Nurses who treat IV drug users with osteomyelitis in the hospital will tell you that their pain can be quite intense. Think of an intense muscle pain that goes extra deep and you might have an idea as to the kind of pain these people deal with. IV drug users who acquire osteomyelitis might also find themselves in the hospital with dozens of tests being ran, different antibiotics being given, and ultimately find themselves stuck in the hospital for any number of weeks being treated for their infection. Remember, if you're in the hospital you won't be able to use drugs like you normally do and you won't have the freedom to use like you do outside of the hospital. Your every move will be monitored by the medical field at that point.

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But what's the biggest risk to developing osteomyelitis? You could potentially lose a limb! That's right. It happens sometimes that osteomyelitis causes such a deterioration of the bone and tissue around it that the doctor might suggest amputation is the best method, particularly if the infection is in the foot, hand, or somewhere in a limb. If it is in your spine, it could potentially be even more serious. You might be left crippled in the end if it is not treated properly and in a timely manner.

X-RAY showing an abscess on ankle and osteomyelitis of the bone.

X-RAY showing an abscess on ankle and osteomyelitis of the bone.

Get Help!

If you or someone you know is addicted to IV drugs, be reminded or remind that person that there is more to risk than just jail-time or overdose. IV drug users are putting themselves at risk for diseases that have to be treated in the hospital setting...which costs money and time and could cost you or that person an arm, a leg, or some other type of disfigurement can occur. You might have to have surgery, and keep in mind just because you're in pain doesn't mean you'll be treated with equal pain meds while in the hospital. Often doctors will prescribe a lesser effective drug because they are not used to giving out the amount of drugs you (or that person) might be used to taking. So you could potentially deal with a lot of pain for an extensive period of time and no high like you are used to.

Now is the time to get help with getting off the IV drugs...and if you suspect you could have an infection of the skin or bone, go to the hospital immediately. Early treatment might be the only way to save yourself from sepsis, surgery or even death.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2015 Kitty Fields


Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on May 27, 2015:

WillStarr - Very good point! There's so many problems that are caused by drug abuse, this article only covers a very small portion of them. Thanks for reading!

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on May 22, 2015:

Kathleen - No, thank you! Blessings to you for being a recovery coach...what a calling that is!

Kathleen Kerswig on May 21, 2015:

Voted up - this is a useful article with information that is not common knowledge for many people. I'm a recovery coach and I've watched people suffer over and over and over again because they just cannot find the willingness to get the help they need. Thank you for sharing. Blessings!

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on May 21, 2015:

Drug users also often end up prostituting themselves to support their habit, and succumb to all sorts of diseases. This would be a good article for young people to read as a warning.

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