Is Marijuana Effective for Treating the Side Effects of Hepatitis C Medication?
Hepatitis C (HCV) is a widespread virus that can lead to chronic liver problems. Some people are turning to marijuana, or cannabis, to manage the unpleasant side effects associated with HCV and HCV medications.
Is this treatment right for you? Learn more about the benefits and risks of cannabis use.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that attacks the liver. It’s transmitted through infected blood, often through sharing needles during drug use. It can also be transmitted through:
- tattoo needles
- the birthing process (from an infected mother to their baby)
- blood transfusions
- sexual contact (rarely)
People infected with HCV may have no symptoms for months, years, or even decades. The condition is typically diagnosed when liver symptoms lead to complications and medical testing.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group that works to reform marijuana laws, explains that many people with HCV use cannabis to ease their general symptoms from the virus. Cannabis is also used to ease the nausea associated with other HCV treatments. This practice is relatively popular, but research results have been mixed. It’s unclear if marijuana is helpful overall and if there are any overall risks.
Marijuana alone doesn’t treat an HCV infection, and it doesn’t treat the complications that lead to liver disease and cirrhosis. Instead, the drug may be particularly effective at reducing nausea associated with the medications used to treat the virus. Marijuana can be:
- inhaled by smoking
- ingested by taking cannabis pills or edibles
- absorbed under the tongue as a tincture
A few studies have credited marijuana use with stricter adherence to treatment protocols. These studies have presented the idea that reducing the unpleasant side effects makes the antiviral medications more tolerable. This way, more people will finish the full course. In turn, people experience better outcomes.
Research on this topic has mixed outcomes. The Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology reports that marijuana use among people infected with HCV is prevalent. The study also showed that people who included the drug in their overall treatment plan didn’t necessarily stick to the plan more closely than their counterparts who didn’t take the drug.
Using marijuana didn’t influence liver biopsies or impact the “hard outcomes” of the antiviral treatment. At the same time, taking the drug didn’t necessarily hurt anything. The study didn’t find any evidence that smoking or taking cannabis pills does any additional damage to the liver, despite what previous research had suggested.
Marijuana isn’t legal in all states. This is the case even when it’s used for medical management of HCV. What’s the good news? Advances in the field are improving medications and lessening treatment durations.
Antiviral medications are usually a first line of defense against HCV. Traditional courses of medication take 24 to 72 weeks. This therapy can give you flu-like symptoms, anemia, or neutropenia. New combinations of antiviral medications may shorten treatment duration to just 12 weeks. It also significantly lessens the most uncomfortable side effects.
If you experience nausea in response to your medication, your doctor can prescribe anti-nausea drugs. These can include:
If your nausea keeps you from taking pills, you can find some that are available as suppositories.
You may also be able to control your nausea through dietary and lifestyle changes:
- Keep a food diary to track any triggers.
- Eat small, frequent meals.
- If your nausea is worse in the morning, try keeping some food next to your bed and getting up more slowly.
As with most other drugs or treatments, there are certain risks with the use of cannabis. Marijuana may cause dizziness. It can also increase your risk of bleeding, affect your blood sugar levels, and lower your blood pressure.
Marijuana can also affect your liver. Whether or not marijuana makes HCV liver disease worse is still up for debate.
Clinical Infectious Diseases published a study in 2013 about the connection between cannabis use and worsening liver symptoms from HCV. In the group of nearly 700 people, the median use of marijuana was seven joints per day. In the end, this study found no significant link between marijuana smoking and liver fibrosis. For every 10 additional joints a person smoked per week over the median, their chance of being diagnosed with cirrhosis increased only slightly.
A 2006 study published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology shares that people with HCV who use marijuana adhere more closely to their treatment protocols. Their conclusion is that any “potential benefits of a higher likelihood of treatment success appear to outweigh risks.”
Still, not all researchers agree. More work needs to be done in this area to assess the benefits and risks further.
Antiviral medications used to treat hepatitis C virus (HCV) can cause some unpleasant symptoms. Medicinal marijuana may be able to curb these side effects.
A new study claims marijuana is tied to a threefold risk of dying from high blood pressure — but there’s a catch
A new study suggests that anyone who smokes marijuana faces a threefold risk of dying from high blood pressure than people who have never used the drug.
Those findings sound alarming, but it’s important to keep in mind that, like any study, this one has limitations, including that it defines marijuana “users” as anyone who’s ever tried the drug and that it doesn’t differentiate among strains of a highly unregulated product.
However, the study highlights some key areas for future study — including how using cannabis might affect the heart. Here’s what you need to know.
‘A greater than three-fold risk of death’
“We found that marijuana users had a greater than three-fold risk of death from hypertension and the risk increased with each additional year of use,” Barbara Yankey, the lead author of the study and a doctoral student of epidemiology and biostatistics at Georgia State University, said in a statement.
For her paper, published Wednesday in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Yankey looked at more than 1,200 people age 20 or older who had been recruited previously as part of a large and ongoing national health survey.
In 2005, researchers asked them whether they had ever used marijuana or hashish. People who answered “yes” were classified as marijuana users; those who answered “no” were classified as nonusers.
Overall, those classified as marijuana users were found to be 3.42 times as likely to die from hypertension, or high blood pressure, than those who said they had never used. That risk also appeared to rise by a factor of 1.04 with what the researchers labeled “each year of use.”
Here’s the problem: The study’s authors defined anyone who said they had ever tried marijuana as a “regular user.”
Other research suggests this is a poor assumption. According to a recent survey, about 52% of Americans have tried cannabis at some point, yet only 14% said they used the drug “regularly,” defined as “at least once a month.”
Also, the study was observational, meaning it followed a group of people over time and reported what happened to them, so the researchers cannot conclude a cause and effect — they can’t say that smoking marijuana causes high blood pressure, only that the two things appear to be linked. The authors wrote, “From our results, marijuana use may increase the risk for hypertension mortality.”
Another issue is the unregulated nature of the existing, and largely illegal, cannabis market. People are using a wide variety of strains whose concentrations of compounds — there are up to 400 in marijuana, including THC and CBD — can differ drastically.
Charles Pollack, who directs the Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and was not involved with the new study, told LiveScience that there were many strains of marijuana “with no quality standards,” and that was “making it tough to generalize” the effects.
Marijuana and your heart
While the study is far from conclusive, it sheds light on an important potential health risk linked with marijuana use. Scientists know that cannabis affects the heart, but because of the limited research available on the drug, it has been hard to suss out how it affects things like high blood pressure.
For example, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, ingesting marijuana increases heart rate by between 20 and 50 beats a minute for anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours.
But a large, recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found “insufficient evidence” to support or refute the idea that cannabis might increase the overall risk of a heart attack, though it also found some limited evidence that using the drug could be a trigger for the phenomenon.
When it comes to cannabis’ effect on blood pressure, the results are also inconclusive. One very small study, for example, found a sharp increase in blood pressure immediately after regular pot users stopped using the drug.
“Abrupt cessation of heavy cannabis use may cause clinically significant increases in blood pressure in a subset of users,” that study’s researchers wrote.
And according to the Mayo Clinic, using cannabis could result in decreased, not increased blood pressure.
Francesca Filbey, the director of cognitive neuroscience research of addictive disorders at the Center for BrainHealth and an associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, told Business Insider that the latest study is an important area for future research, and said the links the study authors found “between death from hypertension and years of marijuana use does indicate a relationship” between the two things.
Still, Filbey said the study has important limitations, and said future studies should aim to also look at how factors like other substance use, BMI and other factors that may affect heart health could play a role in the outcome as well.
A new study suggests marijuana is linked with a threefold risk of death from hypertension. Here's what you should know about cannabis and your heart.