Hepatitis C is a preventable liver infection. Learn about symptoms, treatment and how to avoid it.
The liver processes your body's waste products and detoxifies harmful substances that you ingest, such as alcohol. It also processes the medications you take. The liver stores vitamins and minerals, cholesterol and other substances, then releases them into the blood as needed. It also makes bile, which aids in digestion. These important functions touch every corner of your body. When the liver is harmed, such as from hepatitis, the effects can be felt body-wide.
The liver can become damaged by many things. These include alcohol, toxins, some medications, certain diseases and by infections. The most common cause of liver infection is a virus, such as hepatitis A, B or C. Before effective blood donor screening, hepatitis C was sometimes spread through blood transfusion.
Today, injecting street drugs is the major cause of hepatitis C infection.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is inflammation of the liver from infection with the hepatitis C virus. Over years, the infection can sometimes lead to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, liver cancer or liver failure. About four million Americans, or 2 percent of the population, have been infected with hepatitis C at some point in their lives, and 2.7 million of them are chronically infected.
Acute hepatitis C. This is when you are first infected. Many people don't even know it because they may have no symptoms. Twelve percent to 25 percent of people with acute hepatitis C recover completely and do not develop a chronic infection.
Chronic hepatitis C. This is inflammation of the liver for six months or more. About 75 percent of people with acute hepatitis do not clear the virus from the liver and go on to develop a chronic (long-term) infection that can last a lifetime. About 5 percent to 20 percent develop serious complications.
How is hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C is present in the blood, so the virus is spread through direct contact with the blood of an infected person. Today, sharing needles or other equipment to inject street drugs is the most common way hepatitis C is spread.
Other risk factors for getting the hepatitis C virus include:
Health care workers who have a needle stick injury from an infected person.
Infants born to infected mothers..
Someone who received a blood transfusion before 1992. Since June 1992, very accurate testing of blood products for hepatitis C has been available.
People who have been on dialysis for kidney failure.
People who have had body piercing or tattoos done with nonsterile instruments.
People with HIV.
Having sexual contact with a person who is infected with the hepatitis C virus also can raise your risk. But many persons with hepatitis C have no known risk factors or exposures.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C infection?
Most people with acute hepatitis C don't have any symptoms. Some have mild flu-like symptoms. It takes anywhere from 15 to 60 days after exposure to hepatitis C for the infection to take hold. When they do occur, symptoms of acute hepatitis may include:
Loss of appetite
Nausea and vomiting
Right, upper abdominal pain
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
Clay-colored bowel movements
Most people with chronic hepatitis C do not have symptoms. But some possible symptoms may include:
Aching muscles or joints
Mild discomfort in the upper right-hand side of the abdomen
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
Simple blood tests can diagnose hepatitis C. A blood specimen is tested for antibodies to hepatitis C. Antibodies are proteins your body makes to fight off infection. If hepatitis C antibodies are present, it means that you were exposed to the virus at some point in your life. If antibodies are present, follow-up blood tests are done for diagnosis.
How is hepatitis C treated?
Often people with acute hepatitis C don't get treatment because they don't know they are infected. Treatment for people with chronic hepatitis C is aimed at slowing or stopping liver damage and helping you feel better.
Treatment typically involves:
Interferon. This is a medication that helps your body make a protein to fight the infection. It's given by injection.
Ribavirin. This is an antiviral drug you take as a pill. It is given with interferon.
For people with chronic hepatitis C, doctors usually recommend treatment with a combination of interferon and ribavirin. Treatment usually lasts from six months to a year. The goal of treatment is to clear the virus from the body. Six months of this combined therapy eliminates the virus in about half the people who take it. The effectiveness of drug treatment depends on many factors, including how long you've had the infection, whether you drink alcohol and whether you are overweight.
There are side effects of hepatitis C medicines, including flu-like symptoms and fatigue.
How can you prevent hepatitis C infection?
There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C and treatment is not always effective, so prevention is very important. These precautions can help lower your chances of getting the hepatitis C virus and other diseases, such as hepatitis B and HIV, which are carried in the blood:
Avoid street drugs. If you do use street drugs, then talk to your doctor about a treatment program. Sharing needles or "works" (other equipment) greatly raises your risk for hepatitis C and other diseases transmitted by blood. Even sharing equipment used for intranasal (snorted) cocaine can raise your risk for hepatitis C.
Follow standard ("universal") precautions if you work in health care and handle needles or other equipment.
Practice safe sex. Use barrier protection, such as a latex condom.