A vial being held in a gloved hand, labelled "hepatitis c"

What to Know About Hepatitis C

We'll walk you through all you need to know about the causes, signs, symptoms, and risks of Hepatitis C; so you're prepared for anything.

What Are the Causes of Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver that can range in severity from a mild illness that lasts for a few weeks, to severe illness that persists long-term. In this article, we look at the causes of hepatitis C, the symptoms and the treatment options.

Types of Hepatitis C

There are two main types of hepatitis C:

  • Acute (new): develops within the first six months following exposure to the hepatitis C virus. May be a short-term illness, however, most develop into a chronic infection.
  • Chronic (long-term): if untreated, it can become a lifelong infection. Can result in various health issues including liver damage, liver failure, cirrhosis, liver cancer and premature death.

Causes of Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C spreads when blood contaminated with the hepatitis C virus enters the bloodstream of an uninfected individual. This can happen in various ways:

  1. Sharing injectable drug equipment (i.e. needles, syringes, etc.).
  2. Being born to a mother with hepatitis C – about 6% of babies born to infected mothers develop the infection.
  3. Healthcare exposure (i.e. needle prick).
  4. Sexual contact with an infected individual. This route of infection is rare, but has been reported more often among men who have sex with men.
  5. Getting a body piercing or tattoo in an unlicensed shop, informal setting, or with non-sterile equipment.
  6. Sharing personal items such as razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, etc., that may have come into contact with infected blood.
  7. Receiving a blood transfusion or organ donation before widespread screening came into place in 1992. The risk of transmission to individuals receiving blood or blood products now is very low.

Signs and Symptoms

Acute hepatitis often goes undiagnosed because it rarely causes symptoms. However, they may occur one to three months after exposure to the virus and persist for 2 to 12 weeks:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).
  • Fatigue.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Fever.
  • Dark urine.
  • Light colored stool.

Acute hepatitis C does not always become chronic, with between 15% and 25% of individuals clearing the infection from their bodies after the acute phase; this is known as spontaneous viral clearance.

Every case of chronic hepatitis begins with an acute phase that may go undiagnosed due to a lack of symptoms. Often chronic hepatitis C is diagnosed through abnormal blood tests from a routine doctor’s visit or through screening for blood donation.

However, in some cases, when the infection has caused enough damage it may lead to signs and symptoms of liver disease:

  • Easy bleeding and bruising.
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).
  • Fatigue.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Swollen legs.
  • Hives or rashes.
  • Ascites (build up of fluid in the abdomen).
  • Spider angiomas (spiderlike blood vessels appearing on the skin).
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (drowsiness, confusion, slurred speech).

Risk Factors for Hepatitis

Various risk factors have been identified that increase your risk of getting this infection:

  • Being a healthcare worker exposed to infected blood (i.e. through a needle prick, sharps, etc.).
  • Being a past or current drug user that has injected or inhaled drugs.
  • Receiving a tattoo or piercing using equipment that is not sterile.
  • Received an organ transplant or blood transfusion prior to 1992.
  • Received clotting factor concentrations prior to 1987.
  • Received hemodialysis treatments for a lengthy period of time.
  • Being born to a woman infected with hepatitis C.
  • Having HIV.
  • Having been in prison.
  • Being born between 1945 and 1965, as these individuals have the highest rates of hepatitis C infection.

Treatment Options

Treatment is indicated for all individuals with acute or chronic hepatitis, including children over the age of three.

Antiviral Medication

Hepatitis C is treated with antiviral medication in an effort to rid the virus from your body for a period of 8 to 12 weeks. The goal of antiviral therapy is to have no detectable hepatitis C virus in your body at least 12 weeks after therapy. The choice of antiviral medication, as well as the length of treatment, depends on various factors including hepatitis C genotype, existing extent of liver damage, as well as your general health history and previous treatments.

Liver Transplant

If you develop serious complications from hepatitis C, liver transplant may be an option. During a liver transplant, the damaged liver is removed and replaced with a healthy liver. While most liver transplants are from deceased donors, living donors can donated a portion of their healthy liver for this procedure. It’s important to note that a liver transplant does not cure hepatitis C alone, and that the infection often returns and requires treatment with antiviral therapy to prevent damage to the new liver.

Lifestyle Changes

In addition to standard medical treatments, there are also certain lifestyle changes you can make to keep you healthy and protect those around you:

  • Avoid alcohol consumption, as alcohol speeds up liver disease progression.
  • Avoid medication that may cause liver damage, including prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as herbal supplements.
  • Receive the hepatitis A and B vaccines.
  • Get tested for HIV as the risk of cirrhosis is increased in individuals who have both infections.
  • Take steps to prevent others from coming into contact with your blood. Cover up any cuts, avoid sharing razors and toothbrushes, and do not donate organs, blood, or semen. Ensure that your healthcare providers know you have hepatitis C and that sexual partners are aware of your diagnosis and always have protected sex.

Prevention of Hepatitis C

There are various preventative steps you can take to decrease your risk of contracting hepatitis C. First, stop using illicit drugs, particularly injectable ones. Make sure to use reputable tattoo or body piercing shop that have cleaning protocols in place and that use sterile needles. Also, practice safe sex. Refrain from unprotected sex with multiple partners and with any partner whose health status you do not know.

Final Notes

More than 3 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C, and anyone who has this infection can pass it on to an uninfected person. It’s important to get tested, not only if you have symptoms, but also if you have any risk factors for the infection, as it often results in mild or no symptoms. This will help to ensure prompt treatment and reduce your risk of unknowingly infecting someone else.

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