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Even moderate drinking may be hazardous with hepatitis C

NEW YORK--For people with the chronic liver infection hepatitis C, heavy drinking is an obvious no-no, but a new study links even modest alcohol consumption with an increased risk of death — and not just from liver disease.

“What this study shows is ... truly, even what might be considered a moderate and safe amount of alcohol use in people without hepatitis C is dangerous to your health if you have hepatitis C,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, a hepatitis C researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study.

The findings support what liver specialists typically recommend — that people with hepatitis C should limit their alcohol use, said Dr. Zobair Younossi, the study's lead author and chair of medicine at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, VA.

“Patients with hepatitis C should not really drink,” he said.

But the reality is that people with hepatitis C have higher rates of alcohol use than people without the liver disease, said Proeschold-Bell, who studies interventions to reduce drinking among people with the disease.

Doctors have known that excessive drinking can exacerbate liver disease caused by hepatitis C, but there's some debate about whether less frequent drinking would have a similar effect.

Younossi and his colleagues looked to a large national survey on health and lifestyle that tracked people for several years.

They compared 8,767 people without hepatitis C to 218 people with the disease.

Hepatitis C is a virus spread through blood. Some 3.2 million people in the U.S. have a chronic hepatitis C infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease can cause serious liver damage, and while some people are treated with medications, others will go on to require a liver transplant.

The survey tracked the participants for 13 to 14 years. During that period, 19 percent of those with hepatitis C and 11 percent of those without the infection died.

Younossi's team found that people with hepatitis C who drank excessively — three or more drinks a day — were five times more likely to die than heavy drinkers who were not infected.

That result was not surprising, “We've known heavy drinking is particularly bad if you have hepatitis C,” Proeschold-Bell told Reuters Health.

But people infected with hepatitis C who had up to two drinks a day were also twice as likely to die during the study than those with similar drinking habits who were not infected.

For the purposes of the study, a drink was equivalent to 10 grams of alcohol, which is roughly the amount in four ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or one ounce of hard liquor.

Younossi said the increased risk of death from liver disease is driving the numbers.

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