You probably heard of hepatitis A and B, but did you know that hepatitis C also exists? Similar to the other two diseases, hepatitis C can cause illness in the liver. Here is what you need to know about the topic.
What Is It?
The hepatitis C virus, also called HCV and hepacivirus, is one of the more common hepatitis viruses in the United States. HCV can cause both chronic (long term) and acute (short term) infections of the liver. Symptoms can develop as early as six months of exposure to the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is an estimated 3.2 million people in the United States who have chronic hepatitis C, and approximately 12,000 people die from the disease. Currently, there is no vaccine available for hepatitis C, but the government is working on developing one in the near future.
The hepatitis C virus is a blood borne pathogen, meaning that it is transmitted via blood. In the past, HCV can be contracted through blood transfusions and organ transplants, as well as blood contamination in medical settings. Today, such risks are drastically reduced, and hepatitis C contraction is limited by sharing needles or injection equipment between an infected person and a non-infected person. For example, getting tattoos in an unlicensed facility may increase one’s risk of getting HCV, as well as frequent drug users who share needles with others. It may also be transmitted through unprotected sex.
Symptoms and Signs
Sometimes, acute hepatitis C that recovers by itself has little to no symptoms, so it can go undiagnosed. Chronic hepatitis C can display symptoms, but it can take up to 30 years after obtaining the virus for them to appear. They are similar to other hepatitis infections, as they all target the liver. They may include, but are not limited to:
- Loss of appetite or anorexia
- Abdominal pain
- Dark colored urine
- Grey colored stool
- Joint pain
- Tenderness in the liver area
- Swollen stomach or ankles
- Spider-like thin blood vessels that develop on the skin
If you suspect you have the HCV, be sure to see a doctor immediately to start taking measures to manage the virus.
Diagnosis and Treatment
To confirm the presence of HCV, a blood test will be needed to test the presence of hepatitis C antibodies (which are developed by the body in an attempt to battle the virus). Those who have contracted, but recovered from the virus can still test positive for the HCV antibody. When the presence is confirmed, the doctor will run additional tests to determine if the infection has been cleared or has become a silent, chronic infection.
Hepatitis C is managed through frequent medical visits, along with much rest, good nutrition, plenty of fluids, and prescribed antiviral medications to slow down liver damage. The doctor will monitor closely for signs of liver disease or cancer. During treatment time, it is imperative to stay away from alcohol and over the counter medications and supplements (unless approved by the doctor), as they all provide stress and further damage to the liver. Sometimes, the virus can clear up with proper treatment. In the case of liver failure due to HCV, a liver transplant may be an option, but hepatitis C therapy will still need to continue afterwards as it is a blood borne disease.
For those who develop symptoms, 15 to 20 percent of the infected are acute and recovers naturally. The rest of them, about 75 to 85 percent, become chronic patients with a chance of developing serious liver problems. Some complications may include:
- Chronic liver disease
- Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver tissue)
- Other damages to the liver
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure
Usually, only one to five chronic patients will die of liver disease. Be sure to follow all directions clearly for the most effective management, as damage to the liver can still happen even if symptoms are gone.
These individuals are at higher risk than others of contracting HCV:
- Drug users who use the injection method
- Drug addicts
- Individuals who share needles
- Having rough or unprotected sex with an infected person
- Have an HIV infection (which leads to compromised immune system)
- Have abnormal liver tests or liver disease
- Received donated blood or an organ transplant before 1992
- Have been exposed to blood via needle or injury due to occupational hazards
- Are on hemodialysis
- Frequently receive tattoos in unlicensed parlors
- Being born to a mother who has hepatitis C
- Using an infected person’s toothbrush or razor
Be sure to protect yourself and notify your doctor immediately if you suspect you have contracted hepatitis C.