Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease caused by an infection with the Hepatitis C virus. There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C and no treatment to cure the condition either, so it is important to take precautions to prevent an infection with this disease. Chronic Hepatitis C is the leading cause of cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver transplants in the United States. About 60 percent of all new cases of Hepatitis C are the result of injected drug use.
Causes of Hepatitis C
The Hepatitis C virus is spread mostly through blood and can be transmitted through some the following methods:
- Shared needles
- A blood transfusion prior to 1992
- Sexual contact
- Passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn child
- Long term kidney dialysis
- A tattoo or acupuncture with contaminated needles
- Unsafe medical practices
- Shared personal items with an infected person
Prior to 1992, Hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Many people with hepatitis C do not even know they have the infection because it often causes no symptoms. The symptoms of Hepatitis C can range from mild to serious and lifelong. The average time for symptoms of Hepatitis C to appear is 6 to 7 weeks after exposure. The Hepatitis C virus is classified as either acute or chronic.
Some people with acute Hepatitis C may experience the following symptoms:
- Mild fatigue
- Joint pain
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Reduced appetite
People with chronic Hepatitis C may not experience symptoms. If they have been infected for many years, they may have developed the following illnesses:
- Liver damage
- Liver failure
- Liver cancer
Despite the lack of symptoms, the Hepatitis C virus can be passed to others. The condition is often not diagnosed until a routine screening examination is performed, sometimes decades after the initial infection.
Diagnosis of Hepatitis C
It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you think you have been exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. Your doctor may perform a blood test and liver biopsy to confirm the diagnosis of the infection. Regular testing for people at risk of acquiring Hepatitis C is recommended so that detection of the infection occurs in its earliest stages, before any damage to the liver can begin. Liver damage often occurs before any symptoms are present.
Treatment of Hepatitis C
Acute Hepatitis C does not always require treatment, especially if you are not experiencing symptoms and are at a low risk of developing a chronic condition. Patients who do not require treatment will likely need to undergo regular blood testing to monitor the progression of the disease and begin treatment at the earliest signs of liver abnormalities.
Since 2013 multiple medications have been approved by the FDA for treatment of chronic hepatitis C and are highly effective with excellent safety profiles and very few side effects. For patients with a severe Hepatitis C infection and cirrhosis, a liver transplant may be needed. Drug treatment is usually needed after surgery as the infection may reoccur.
Prevention of Hepatitis C
Although there is no vaccine to prevent Hepatitis C, you can protect yourself against infection by reducing the risk of exposure. To reduce the risk of exposure:
- Practice safe sex
- Practice proper hygiene
- Avoid sharing needles
- Wear gloves when exposed to blood
- Ensure the use of sterile equipment when getting a tattoo or piercing
- Get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B
These steps are also important if you are already infected. People infected with Hepatitis C need to avoid:
- Illegal drugs
- Substances toxic to the liver
Open communication with your partner and other loved ones can also help reduce your risk of spreading or contracting Hepatitis C as well as a sexually transmitted disease.
Despite the serious complications associated with Hepatitis C, it is a manageable condition as long as there is proper treatment and lifestyle changes. Our practice provides comprehensive care for our patients with Hepatitis C and we can help develop a customized treatment plan that allows you to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle.
Policy Lab bridges the information gap between government-sponsored clinical trials and patients, and has dedicated resources for Hepatitis C patients. Learn more about Hepatitis C here.