Hepatitis C is a virus that targets the liver and causes inflammation that can damage the organs. Hepatitis C is contagious, spreading from person to person through contact with infected blood. Though it was previously thought to be incurable, Hepatitis C can be treated and even cured with medication.
What causes Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C virus spreads through contact with the blood of someone who is infected. It can be an acute or chronic infection. The acute infection is a short illness, which the body may fight off on its own. Acute Hepatitis C often lasts up to six months. The chronic infection is ongoing and the body cannot fight it off alone. This occurs in 75 to 85 percent of people with Hepatitis C.
Who is at risk of getting Hepatitis C?
Those who are at risk of contracting hepatitis C include:
- Healthcare workers who have been exposed to infected blood or needle sticks
- Current or former illicit injection drug users
- HIV patients
- Those who receive tattoos or piercings using unsterilized equipment
- Anyone who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Anyone who received clotting factor before 1987
- Babies born to women with Hepatitis C
- Anyone who works or lives in a prison
- Someone who has been on kidney dialysis
- People born in the United States between 1945 and 1965, known as “baby boomers,” are at an increased risk of Hepatitis C due to the frequency of intravenous drug use in the 1970s and 1980s
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
People with acute Hepatitis C often have no symptoms and do not even know they are infected. It can take years or decades for symptoms to develop. Those with chronic Hepatitis C, or an ongoing infection, often have symptoms though they likely did not have them initially. Chronic Hepatitis C begins as an acute infection that has not been diagnosed since the person is asymptomatic.
Symptoms can start two weeks to six months after the infection begins. They include:
- Abdominal pain
- Dark-colored urine
- Feeling tired or fatigued
- Poor appetite
- Gray or clay-colored stools
- Joint pain
- Yellow-colored eyes and skin, known as jaundice
- Tenderness around the liver
- Fluid in the abdomen, called ascites
- Swelling in the legs
- Easy bruising or bleeding
To diagnose Hepatitis C, your healthcare provider will begin with a medical history and physical exam. The provider will look for signs of liver damage, which may be caused by the virus. Blood tests, including antibody screening for Hepatitis C, will determine if the virus has ever been present in your body. Antibodies develop after someone is exposed to a foreign invader. They will remain there even after the invader is gone. Your body may be able to defend against it, which means antibodies would remain as the only evidence of the infection.
If antibodies are present, a Hepatitis C RNA test will determine if RNA from the virus is present. RNA is part of the virus' genetic make-up, so this can show if you still have the virus and, if so, how much is present. This test also helps monitor the infection during treatment to see if there are any improvements.
A genotype test will determine the type of Hepatitis C you have. There are six types or strains known as genotypes. By knowing this information, your provider can determine the best treatment for your strain.
Other blood tests, including liver studies, may be done to look for damage. Depending on how advanced your condition is, your doctor may also recommend an ultrasound or biopsy of the liver.
How is Hepatitis C treated?
Your healthcare provider may refer you to a hepatologist for treatment. Hepatitis C treatment includes antiviral medications, which can now cure people with acute and chronic diseases. Someone with Hepatitis C takes these medications for many weeks to overcome the disease. Some medications work well for different strains of the virus and others do not respond well to the same type of drug. Individuals with certain strains may be required to take multiple medications to treat and overcome symptoms. Some of these approved medications include:
To cure the disease, it is necessary for someone to completee the entire treatment course. It is also important that individuals discuss any other prescription or over-the-counter medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), supplements, or vitamins, with their provider before taking them.
Preventing Hepatitis C
There is no vaccination available for Hepatitis C, soit is essential to prevent the spread of the virus by avoiding exposure or contact with infected blood.
Hepatitis C cannot spread through touching, coughing, sneezing, or general contact like other illnesses can. It is not necessary to avoid all contact with someone suspected of having Hepatitis C. You can take some of the following precautions to protect yourself:
- Do not share personal care items, such as razors, toothbrushes, etc.
- Do not share needles or syringes
- Wear gloves when handling blood
- Use condoms and other safe sex practices
- If you are a healthcare worker, always use personal protective equipment
- If you are getting or giving tattoos or piercings, ensure sterile equipment is being used
Screening for all adults ages 18 to 79 can help diagnose those who have been infected but are not experiencing any symptoms.
Does Hepatitis C cause other problems?
If not treated, Hepatitis C can lead to serious complications. In severe cases, liver damage may result. This can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer. These diseases may require a liver transplant, if someone is a candidate for this procedure.
Hepatitis C is a contagious virus that can cause damage to the liver. Those with Hepatitis C can receive treatment and continue with their daily lives. They can continue to work and are encouraged to exercise daily, eat nutritious meals, and limit or avoid alcohol. A cure is obtainable due to recent medical advances. Contact your provider to discuss the best treatment options.
Cleveland Clinic. Hepatitis C
Mayo Clinic. Hepatitis C
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Hepatitis C
Harvard Health Publishing. Baby boomers and hepatitis C: What’s the connection?