Hepatitis C is a disease of your liver caused by the hepatitis C virus, also called HCV. Your liver is the largest organ inside your body. Located under your right ribcage, your liver has many important jobs, like cleaning harmful chemicals from your blood, helping you fight infections, and breaking down your food, as well as storing nutrients, vitamins, and energy. If your liver gets infected by HCV, it becomes inflamed. Inflammation is your body's response to an injury or infection. Inflammation from HCV will keep your liver from doing its job correctly.
Causes of Hepatitis C
You can get hepatitis C from contact with another person’s infected blood. Things like needles or syringes can spread the virus if they are used by an infected person and then shared with others.
HCV is one of the most common viruses that affect the liver. It infects many millions of people around the world. People who are more likely to get hepatitis C include:
- Babies born to a mother with hepatitis C
- Health care workers who work around blood or may get accidentally stuck with a needle
- People who use needles to inject street drugs
- People who have many sex partners
- People who got blood for medical treatment prior to 1992, before donated blood was screened for HCV
It is possible, but less common, to get hepatitis C through single-partner sex and by sharing personal care items like razors that could have traces of blood on them.
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of HCV infection usually appear around two weeks to six months after the virus gets in your body. However, most people do not have any symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they may include:
- Muscle or joint pain
- Being very tired
- Upset stomach, nausea, or vomiting
- Stomach or abdominal pain
- No desire to eat
- Dark colored urine
- Gray-colored bowel movements, and
- Yellowed eyes or skin, a condition called jaundice
If you get hepatitis C, there’s a good chance you will develop long-lasting liver disease, called chronic hepatitis C. But, the symptoms of chronic hepatitis C usually don’t show up for 10 years or more after you are infected. People who have hepatitis C and drink too much alcohol or are infected with HIV may develop problems with chronic hepatitis C sooner than people with just HCV infection alone.
If chronic hepatitis C isn’t found or treated, you can get scarring of the liver – a condition called cirrhosis, as well as liver failure and cancer of the liver. And, besides all the other signs and symptoms of hepatitis C, chronic hepatitis C can cause abnormal bleeding, swelling in your belly and legs, and spider-like blood vessels on your skin called angiomas.
Your symptoms or your medical history may cause your doctor to test you for hepatitis C. To find out for sure, you will need to have two different blood tests. The first blood test for hepatitis C measures proteins called antibodies. The body makes antibodies against HCV if someone is exposed to it. If the antibody test shows that you have been exposed to HCV, a second blood test is performed. This test is called a RNA, or viral load test. It checks for HCV in your bloodstream. Chronic hepatitis C means that HCV has been in your blood for more than six months. Blood tests may also be done to see if the infection is harming your liver.
If your blood tests suggest that you have chronic hepatitis C, you may need to have a test called a biopsy. This involves putting a needle into your liver to take out a small piece of tissue. It will then be looked at under a microscope to see if your liver is damaged.
If you have chronic hepatitis C, you may need to be treated to prevent more serious problems, like scarring of the liver, liver cancer, and liver failure. The most common treatment is a combination of powerful antiviral drugs, taken by mouth. These drugs are called peg interferon alpha 2-a, and ribavirin. You may have to take these drugs for 6 to 12 months. You have about a 25 to 50 percent chance of being cured of HCV infection with this combination. Doctors have started adding a third kind of drug, called a protease inhibitor, to the standard combination. This “triple therapy” has a better chance of curing HCV infection than the two-drug combination and may only need to be given for 3 months. If your liver becomes severely damaged, liver transplant surgery may be needed.
If you have chronic hepatitis C, you should also be tested for HIV, because the two viruses together can cause more damage to your body than either one alone, and treatment of both can help prevent liver damage. In addition, you should not drink alcohol. You will also need to check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen or supplements like glucosamine. You should also get vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
The best way to keep from getting hepatitis C is to avoid contact with the blood of an infected person. You can do this by:
- Not sharing needles used to inject drugs
- Not sharing personal items, like a toothbrush or razor, that may have another person's blood on it
- Making sure any tools used for body piercing, tattoos, or acupuncture have been sterilized,
- Wearing latex gloves if you have to touch another person's blood, and
- Practicing safe sex and always using a condom
What You Can Do
Many people who have hepatitis C don’t have symptoms and don't know they are infected. They might develop liver damage and pass the infection to someone else. It’s important to get treatment hepatitis C early to prevent future liver damage.
- Remember that it can take 10 years or more after being infected to start having symptoms of chronic hepatitis C. If you think you might have it, ask your doctor to test you for the virus.
- Let your doctor know if someone you live with or have had sex with has hepatitis C.
- If you have any symptoms of hepatitis C, see your doctor right away.
What We Have Learned
- You get the hepatitis C virus by having contact with an infected person’s blood. True or False
The answer is True. Things like needles or syringes can spread the virus if they are used by an infected person and then shared with others.
- Hepatitis C can cause a long-lasting liver disease called chronic hepatitis C. True or False
The answer is True. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C usually don’t show up for 10 years or more after you are infected.
- The most common treatment for hepatitis C is a blood transfusion. True or False
The answer is False. The most common treatment for hepatitis C is a combination of powerful antiviral drugs, taken by mouth.