What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver. In time, it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure. Hepatitis C is the most common form of infectious hepatitis. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 3.5 million Americans have it, and up to 85% of these people are unaware they have the infection.
What causes the Hepatitis C infection?
HCV is caused by the hepatitis C virus. It is spread by contact with an infected person’s blood.
You can get hepatitis C if:
- You share needles used to inject illegal drugs. This is the most common way to get hepatitis C in the United States.
- You had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992. As of 1992 in the United States, all donated blood and organs are screened.
- You get a shot with a needle that has infected blood on it. This happens in some developing countries where they use needles more than once when giving shots.
- You get a tattoo or a piercing with a needle that has infected blood on it. This can happen if equipment isn’t cleaned properly after it is used.
In rare cases, an infected mother spreads the virus to her baby at birth, or a health care worker is accidentally exposed to infected blood.
The risk of getting hepatitis C through sexual contact is very small. The risk is higher if you have many sex partners.
You cannot become infected from casual contact such as hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing, or sharing food or drink.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?
Most people have no symptoms at first. If symptoms develop, they usually include feeling tired, joint pain, belly pain, itchy skin sore muscles and dark urine. Many people go on to develop Chronic Hepatitis C but still have no symptoms; therefore, the disease is often not diagnosed for fifteen years or more.
New guidelines issued by the CDC recommend testing for Hepatitis C, because of the damage an undetected infection causes over time. The recently issued recommendation advises all baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 to get tested. This group is 5x more likely to have HCV because they may have received blood transfusions prior to the introduction of screening for HIV and hepatitis, may have a history of injection drug use, may have had unprotected sex, unsterile piercing or tattoos, or exposure to infected blood through needle sticks or direct contact. Even if you think you haven’t been exposed to hepatitis, it is suggested that you have the simple blood test to confirm you are virus free.
How is Hepatitis C diagnosed?
Many people find out by accident that they have the virus. They find out when their blood is tested before a blood donation or as part of a routine checkup. Often people with hepatitis C have high levels of liver enzymes in their blood.
If your doctor thinks you may have hepatitis C, he or she will talk to you about having a blood test. If the test shows hepatitis C antibodies, then you have had HCV at some point. A second test can tell if you still have it.
When blood tests show that you have hepatitis C, in some instances, you may need a liver biopsy to see the degree of damage. You may also have imaging tests, such as a CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound, to make sure that you don’t have liver tumors.
How is it treated?
You and your doctor need to decide if you should take medicine for treatment. It may not be right for everyone.
If you do take medicine, the best treatment is a combination of medicines that fight infection. Today medicines are administered orally and usually over a period of 8-12 weeks. How well these medicines work depends on how damaged your liver is, how serious your infection is, and what type of hepatitis you have, however; the cure rate of each medicine is usually about 95%. Injectable medicines, such as interferon, are a thing of the past. Most everyone can be treated with oral medications.
Taking care of yourself is an important part of the treatment for hepatitis C. Some people actually don’t notice a change in the way they feel. Others feel tired, sick, or depressed. You may feel better if you exercise and eat healthy foods. To help prevent further liver damage, avoid alcohol and illegal drugs and certain medicines that can be hard on your liver.
CDC: Center of Disease Control and Prevention; Hepatitis C. 2018
WebMD; Hepatitis C – an overview. 2018