Everything You Want to Know About Hepatitis C
April 1, 2021
Everything You Want to Know About Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is a disease that causes inflammation and infection of the liver. This condition develops following the transmission of the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
The most common hepatitis types in the United States are hepatitis A, B, and C. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, although efforts to create one are ongoing.
Hepatitis C can be either acute or chronic. If you have symptoms of acute hepatitis C, they generally set in quickly and last only a few weeks.
Chronic hepatitis C symptoms develop over a period of months or years and may not be apparent at first.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 71 million people around the world have chronic hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C symptoms
According to the WHO, approximately 80 percent of people with a new HCV infection don’t have symptoms. Still, some people report mild to severe symptoms. These include:
- dark urine
- loss of appetite
- abdominal pain or discomfort
- joint pain
The symptoms may not show up right away. Some may take anywhere from two to 12 weeks to appear. A person with an HCV infection can still transmit the virus even if they don’t have symptoms.
Acute hepatitis C
Acute infections occur within 6 months of coming into contact with the virus. These cases are typically mild, lasting only a few weeks.
Chronic hepatitis C
However, hepatitis C can become chronic more than half the time and maybe lifelong if left untreated. It can lead to long-term health problems, including liver damage and liver cancer.
How do you get hepatitis C?
HCV is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact with someone with an infection. You can contract the virus again even if you’ve had it before. It can be passed through:
- organ transplants
- sharing items like razors or toothbrushes
- sharing needles
- childbirth (passing from a mother with hepatitis C to her baby)
- sexual contact if blood is exchanged
- getting a tattoo or a piercing with non-sterile equipment
Prior to 1992, blood transfusions were considered a highly viable method of transmitting the hepatitis C virus.
Due to medical advances in blood screening, the likelihood of transmission via this medical process has been significantly reduced.
People who have a high risk for transmission with HCV include those who:
- had a blood transfusion before 1992
- received an organ transplant before 1992
- received clotting factor concentrates or other blood products before 1987
- received hemodialysis treatment for a long period
- were born to a mother with hepatitis C
- had a sexual partner who had hepatitis C
- have used needles that were used before
Hepatitis C can’t be transmitted via:
- sharing food or eating utensils
- a mosquito bite
Is hepatitis C curable?
Around 30 percent of people with acute hepatitis C get better within 6 months without treatment, per data published by the WHO. If you develop chronic hepatitis C, it can likely still be cured.
The WHO states that antiviral medications can cure over 95 percent of hepatitis C diagnoses. This newer treatment usually takes around 12 to 24 weeks and has few side effects.
Treatment of hepatitis C
Not everyone with hepatitis C will need treatment. For some people, their immune systems may be able to fight the infection well enough to clear the virus from their bodies.
For people whose immune systems don’t clear the infection, medications are usually effective.
Past hepatitis C treatment regimens required weekly injections with many negative side effects. Newer antiviral medications are often successful at treating the virus. They come in pill form and cause few side effects.
Hepatitis C medications
There are many medications for hepatitis C. Treatments most often include antivirals, with Riboviria sometimes prescribed if previous treatments were ineffective.
Medications called direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) work to fully remove the hepatitis C virus from your body while helping prevent liver damage. Brand names of these medications include:
The hepatitis C genotype can affect your treatment options. Once your doctor knows your genotype, they’ll have a better idea of which medication will work best for you.
Hepatitis C tests
Your doctor may not have enough evidence just from your symptoms to properly diagnose hepatitis C. It’s important to talk with your doctor about getting tested if you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis C virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends hepatitis C testing for:
- pregnant women
- people who’ve contracted HIV
- people on hemodialysis
- those with abnormal liver tests
Your doctor may order a series of blood tests to check for signs of HCV, starting with a hepatitis C antibody test.
If the test is positive, other blood tests can be done to check whether it’s active and to measure the amount of HCV in your blood.
Next, a genotyping test can show which hepatitis C genotype you have. This information will help determine the treatment that will be most effective for you.
If tests indicate that you have chronic hepatitis C or your doctor thinks you have liver damage, they’ll order a liver function test. This checks your blood for signs of heightened enzymes from your liver.
Another test to check for liver damage is a liver biopsy. The involves taking a small piece of tissue from your liver and testing it for cell abnormalities.
Hepatitis C antibody
Certain foreign substances that enter your body trigger your immune system to make antibodies. Antibodies are specifically programmed to only target the foreign substance that they were made to fight.
If you’ve ever had an HCV infection, your body will make hepatitis C antibodies as part of its immune response to HCV.
Since your body only makes these antibodies if you have hepatitis C, the hepatitis C antibody test can confirm whether you have an HCV infection by testing for these specific antibodies.
It may take 2 to 3 months after exposure for the test to detect antibodies. If needed, your doctor may order an HCV RNA test, which can detect the virus after just 1 or 2 weeks.
If the antibody test is positive, an HCV RNA test can show whether the infection is current.
Hepatitis C symptoms in men
Hepatitis C symptoms in men are the same as in women. However, a 2014 study indicated that men may be less likely to clear the virus than women.
Hepatitis C in men may stay in their systems longer. It may also be more likely to cause symptoms in men compared to younger women.
Hepatitis C prevention
Currently, there’ isn’t a hepatitis C vaccine, though research is underway. However, avoiding contact with the blood of someone who has an HCV infection can help prevent you from acquiring the hepatitis C virus.
You can do this by:
- avoiding using someone else’s razor, nail clippers, or toothbrush
- not sharing needles or syringes
- getting tattoos or piercings only at licensed facilities
- practicing safer sex with your partner(s) by using condoms or other barrier methods
If you think you may have been exposed to HCV, it’s important to get tested as soon as possible.
Hepatitis C complications
Untreated chronic hepatitis C may eventually lead to complications, which can include severe scarring of the liver, which is called cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
Some people with hepatitis C may need a liver transplant.
If you believe you contracted HCV, the sooner you receive a hepatitis C diagnosis, the sooner your doctor can start a treatment plan to help you avoid complications.
Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact with someone who has an HCV infection. Your body may clear the infection on its own, but in most cases, hepatitis C will develop into a chronic condition.
Hepatitis C can usually be cured, but it may eventually lead to severe liver damage if left untreated.
If you’re at higher risk for getting an HCV infection than the general population, it’s important to get regular hepatitis C screenings.
If you contract the hepatitis C virus, the sooner you know, the better your chances are for avoiding complications.
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