Definition & Overview

Hepatitis C is a contagious disease characterized by the inflammation of the liver. It is a part of the Hepatitis family of liver infections; the other two being Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. Hepatitis C can appear as an acute or chronic infection. Many cases begin as acute but develop into a chronic condition. A person with chronic hepatitis C infection will likely have it for a lifetime wherein the condition will cause severe liver damage such as cirrhosis or cancer. Majority of liver transplant cases are due to the Hepatitis C virus.

Hepatitis C displays very few symptoms, if any at all. Most people do not even know they have the virus. Unlike Hepatitis A & B that can be prevented by vaccines, there are no vaccines available for Hepatitis C, which is why most people will only discover that they have the disease many years after they contracted it.

Hepatitis C is a very serious disease. Statistics show that 75-85 percent of people with the infection will develop chronic hepatitis C. 70 percent of them will develop liver disease. In every 100 people with the disease, 1 to 2 percent will eventually die from cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Cause of Condition

Hepatitis C is caused by the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), which can be transmitted from person to person in several ways. The most common transmission methods are:

  • Needle sharing - whether through the use of illegal drugs or for a legitimate medical condition.
  • Sex - especially with people who have STD or HIV.
  • Passed by a pregnant mother to the child
  • Using an infected item such as a razor
  • When receiving a tattoo or body piercing

It is important to understand that Hepatitis C can only be transmitted through infected blood. A person cannot be infected by the virus through sneezing, coughing, or use of utensils. It will also not be transmitted through water or food products. To date, there is no evidence that Hepatitis C can be transmitted through insect or mosquito bites.

When infected blood is outside the body, it can only survive for a period of 16 hours to 4 days at room temperature. The virus can still be contagious during this period. When cleaning blood spills, always wear protective equipment, like gloves, and dilute the blood using bleach and water.

Key Symptoms

Majority of people with Hepatitis C will not display any symptoms. However, there are those who may have mild to severe symptoms, including the following:

  • Jaundice
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • A feeling of fatigue and nausea
  • Fever

Most of the symptoms will appear 2-3 months after contracting the disease. Those who do not display any symptoms of Hepatitis C will likely never know until severe liver damage occurs, unless the person is tested for the virus.

Once the liver has been damaged due to the infection, the patients will likely display the following symptoms:

  • Weight loss
  • Swollen legs
  • Bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen
  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Spider angioma (blood vessels that appear like a spider web)

Who to see & types of treatment available

If you develop any of the symptoms, the first doctor to see is your primary care physician. You may then be referred to a gastroenterologist or a hepatologist for further diagnosis and treatment. If you do not display any symptoms of Hepatitis C, but are concerned that you may have it, it would be best to undergo a blood test for the disease. You’re at risk if you belong to any of the following groups:

  • You are a current or former drug user who often shared needles with others
  • You received a blood transfusion before 1992
  • You received an organ transplant before 1992
  • You were born between 1945 to 1965
  • You have a liver disease
  • You have an HIV infection
  • You have been undergoing hemodialysis for quite some time
  • You are in the healthcare industry and injured with a needle or other sharp items previously used on patients.
  • If you experienced imprisonment for any amount of time
  • If your mother contracted the virus prior to your birth

If you are pregnant and concerned that you may have acquired the disease because of any of the above conditions, you would want to undergo blood testing for Hepatitis C. Although there are a number of prenatal tests required during pregnancy, testing for Hepatitis C is not included and must be requested separately.

Testing for Hepatitis C may involve one or more of the following procedures:

  • Test to determine the presence of HCV
  • Test to measure the quantity of HCV
  • Determine the genetic makeup of the virus
  • Liver biopsy

There may be no vaccines available for Hepatitis C, but this does not mean that the condition cannot be treated. In fact, close to 25 percent of people who contracted the virus will heal without any treatment. Unfortunately, there is currently no way to identify who will be in the 25%. Therefore, it is best to seek treatment for the condition.

Two types of drugs will normally be used in the treatment of Hepatitis C – Sovaldi and Ledipasvir. These are often combined in a single drug called Harvoni. This drug has the ability to cure the disease within 8 to 12 weeks. However, the following drugs may also be used to treat the condition:

  • Interferon
  • Ribavirin
  • Soposvuvir
  • Telaprevir
  • Simeprevir

You will need to be aware that some drugs do have side effects such as anemia, skin rashes, diarrhea, depression, nausea, mild anxiety, fatigue, or flu-like symptoms. If you develop any of these side effects during treatment, make sure you inform your doctor immediately.

In severe cases, or in cases where the liver has already been damaged beyond repair, a liver transplant will be required. While most liver transplants are from deceased donors, there are also people who may be willing to donate a part of their liver. Even if you receive a liver transplant, you will still need to undergo treatment for the virus since there is still a chance it may infect the healthy liver.

References:

  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Hepatitis C Association. https://hepcassoc.org/
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