Hepatitis C, or HCV, is a virus that infects the liver and frequently becomes a chronic disease, creating long term inflammation in the liver. It spreads from person to person through blood contact.
Most patients with HCV have no symptoms. The disease when unchecked can eventually cause liver scarring, or ‘cirrhosis’, that eventually leads to symptoms of yellowing of the eyes and skin (or jaundice), easy bleeding, or swelling in the legs and ankles.
How do patients get the disease?
Since HCV spreads through blood contact, exposure can occur with sharing drug needles, use of infected needles for tattooing or piercing, having sex with an infected person, sharing razors or other objects that have blood on them, getting a blood transfusion prior to 1990 (when blood screening was changed), or being born to a hepatitis C infected mother. Unlike other hepatitis viruses, A or B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Diagnosis of Hepatitis C
Testing for chronic HCV is often done in patients who have evidence of liver disease on abnormal blood test, physical exam findings, or imaging of the liver. In addition, screening for HCV is performed in patients who have had a past blood exposure such as those described above.
Simple blood tests can show if a patient has the disease and which type of HCV is present. There are 6 main ‘genotypes’, or subtypes of HCV. A hepatitis C ‘antibody’ only indicates prior exposure to the disease, while an HCV ‘viral load’, or count of the number of virus copies in the blood, proves chronic infection. Liver imaging such as an ultrasound is done to find any obvious liver damage. Sometimes a liver biopsy or needle sample of the liver is ordered to determine home much liver disease is present.
How is Hepatitis C treated?
Many factors determine the best way to treat a patient’s disease. Existing liver damage or cirrhosis, genotype and viral count, and whether a patient has had prior treatment can all affect what medications are used and how long they are taken. In the past, treatment options were limited to only a few medications, typically a daily pill called ribavirin and a weekly injection called interferon. This regimen could last up to 1 year, was only partially effective, and had many side effects.
In the past few years there has been significant advances in hepatitis C therapy as many new medications have been proven to be effective against the disease. Most newer treatment regimens now include only pills and do not require injections, have few if any significant side effects, are taken for shorter periods of time, and can be more than 90% effective at eliminating the disease. Some treatments can now be as short as 2 months.*
It is important to review a patient’s other medications prior to starting therapy to avoid drug interactions. It is also important not to skip daily doses of medications as this can reduce the chance of cure. While a patient is treated, regular lab tests are monitored to confirm adequate response to therapy. These tests are repeated months after treatment is complete to confirm cure of the disease.
Common Hepatitis C medications:
Be proactive about your health and make your appointment to be screened today!