One of the dangers of injecting drugs outside of a medical clinic is obvious: overdose.
Others are less obvious, but still pretty well understood: Sharing needles carries risks of viral infections.
But it’s a third type of risk that caught the attention of researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“You could, you know, get infections from your own skin, and your own hand, without sharing with anyone else,” said Ghinwa Dumyati, who directs a disease surveillance program at URMC’s Center for Community Health and Prevention.
A few years ago, Dumyati said, she noticed a spike in bacterial and fungal infections among people who inject drugs.
She told the federal Centers for Disease Control about her concerns and began tracking the infections in those patients.
In 14% of the patients Dumyati tracked, infections resulted in inflammation of the heart valves. “That can be a really big deal,” she said. “Very expensive, and very dangerous.”
Doctors have been missing the chance to educate patients about the risk of diseases transmitted into their bloodstream from their own skin, Dumyati said.
“We have not been very good, even on the medical side, explaining to them, if you’re going to continue to inject, here are some advice that you can follow.”
The CDC noted Dumyati’s concerns and published updated guidance for medical practitioners.
“Be on alert for infections among patients who inject drugs,” the agency instructs doctors. “Educate patients who continue to inject drugs.”
The best way to reduce the risk of infection is to stop drug use, Dumyati said. But that’s not always feasible, at least in the short term.
Dumyati said she recommends medication-assisted treatment for long-term recovery. But until a patient stops using drugs, she said, it’s important to use a clean needle and sanitize the injection site, even if the needle is not shared with anyone else.