What Is Hepatitis C? Learn About This Liver Disease
Hepatitis C is an infectious liver disease that affects close to four million people in the United States. This disease causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to serious, long-term problems if it isn't treated properly. If you think that you or a loved one might suffer from Hepatitis C, it is essential to go to a doctor to get a diagnosis and start treatment. If you've already been diagnosed with Hep C, keep reading to learn more about managing this condition.
What Is Hepatitis C?
When doctors use the term hepatitis, they are referring to an inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C virus, often known just as Hep C or HCV, is a viral infection that attacks the liver. This disease is contagious and can cause both mild and severe symptoms. Individuals who have this disease suffer from either acute or chronic Hepatitis C. In some cases, those with Hep C also have HIV, which is primarily because both are infectious diseases and are transmitted in the same way.
Chronic HCV often results in cirrhosis, a severe liver disease. People who have cirrhosis have an excess of scar tissue on their liver. This scar tissue is known as fibrosis.
Stages and Types of Hepatitis C
Doctors recognize two different types of Hepatitis C.
Acute Hepatitis C lasts for several weeks. It appears up to six months after someone is first exposed to the virus. Most people who have acute Hep C will develop the chronic version of the disease. Some people will be cured of an acute HCV infection with medical treatment and will no longer carry the virus.
Chronic Hepatitis C is a long-term illness. It happens when the hepatitis virus remains in a person's body after an acute infection. Chronic Hep C can cause health problems including liver cancer and cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver.
Many cases of chronic Hep C result in liver disease. Doctors usually talk about four different stages of liver disease.
- Stage 0: Mild fibrosis may be present.
- Stage I: Mild fibrosis may be present. The individual likely has chronic HCV at this stage.
- Stage II: Fibrosis is more serious and may develop into cirrhosis.
- Stage III: Fibrosis is severe and has developed into cirrhosis.
Individuals who suffer from stage II or III liver disease will need to see a specialist for liver treatment.
Symptoms and Causes
Hep C is a blood-borne disease, which means that it spreads when you come into contact with the blood of an infected person. This form of hepatitis can be spread by contact with other infected body fluids, such as semen, but doctors say that the chances of this happening are very rare. Doctors have identified several common causes of HCV, including:
- Sharing needles used for intravenous drugs
- Being accidentally pricked by an infected needle in a healthcare setting
- Being born to a woman infected with the virus
- Sharing hygiene items, such as toothbrushes and razors, with an infected person
- Having unprotected sexual intercourse with someone who has the virus or has open cuts or sores on their genitalia
You may have heard that you can get Hepatitis C from getting a tattoo or piercing. That is only true if you have work done by an individual who doesn't follow proper sterilization procedures. Licensed tattoo and piercing shops use sterilization equipment that prevents the spread of HCV and other diseases.
Many individuals who have Hepatitis C don't develop any symptoms until the infection is chronic and has caused liver issues. Others develop symptoms shortly after being exposed to the virus. The most common symptoms of Hep C include:
- Decreased appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Gray feces
- Dark urine
- Joint pain
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
Prevention and Risks
Hepatitis C is spread when an individual comes into contact with blood from someone who already has the disease. The people at the biggest risk for Hep C infections are IV drug users who share needles. Professionals who work in healthcare or prison settings where they can accidentally be pricked by needles or exposed to blood can also be infected. Some Americans who received blood transfusions before new screening procedures were fully enacted in 1992 may have contracted HCV when they got blood.
The easiest way to keep from getting an HCV infection is to avoid coming in contact with the blood of others. That means wearing safety equipment when cleaning up blood spills, avoiding sharing needles and getting tattoos and piercings done only at clean, licensed shops. Individuals who already have Hep C can help prevent the spread of the disease in the following ways:
- Getting into a treatment program if they use IV drugs
- Covering cuts and blisters with band aids
- Carefully disposing of bloody tissues, feminine hygiene products, and band aids
- Avoiding donating blood, organs or sperm
- Not sharing personal hygiene items
Mothers who have HCV can breastfeed their babies as long as they don't have any cracks or sores on their nipples. Hep C can't be transmitted by breast milk alone.
Diagnosis and Tests
To diagnose Hepatitis C, your doctor will run a series of blood tests. The first test looks for Hep C antibodies. If you have Hep C antibodies in your blood, doctors will know that you were exposed to the Hepatitis C virus at some point in your life. If you test positive for HCV antibodies, your doctor will order further tests to determine if the virus is still present in your bloodstream. If it is, you will be diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
Treatments, Procedures, and Medication
If you're diagnosed with HCV, you'll need to see a specialist who has experience treating the disease. You might see a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in treating problems of the digestive track. You might also see a hepatologist, a doctor who specializes in the treatment of the liver, gallbladder and pancreas. Your general practitioner can give you a referral to the appropriate specialist.
Your doctor will take steps to help you battle the infection and protect your liver from damage. The most common type of treatment is by prescription medication. The FDA has approved several medications to treat HCV, including:
- interferon alpha-2b
These medications help people completely overcome the virus in 15-25% of cases. For others, they help minimize symptoms and control liver damage.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
Making good health choices is important for individuals who have Hepatitis C. Because Hep C causes liver damage, it's particularly important to avoid things that can hurt the liver. If you have this disease, it's important to take the following actions:
- Avoid drinking alcohol.
- Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any medications or supplements you take.
- Ask your doctor about getting vaccinated against Hep A and Hep B.
- Make regular appointments with your doctor to monitor liver health.
There is no particular diet that individuals who have HCV need to follow. However, eating a healthy and balanced diet will help support the overall health of your body and liver. Keep the following diet tips in mind:
- Eat regular and balanced meals.
- Eat plenty of whole grains.
- Choose fresh fruits and vegetables when possible.
- Get enough protein.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Avoid excess calories.
Hepatitis C can seem very scary. However, doctors today know a great deal about this virus and can prescribe drugs that help to protect your liver and promote your quality of life. If you think you might have Hep C, talk to a doctor as soon as possible so you can get an accurate diagnosis and start a treatment program.
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- CDC: Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public
- Sutter Health: Hepatitis C Disease and Treatment Overview
- Hepatitis C Association: Sexual Transmission of HCV
- World Health Organization: Hepatitis C
- American Liver Foundation: How Can I Prevent Giving Hepatitis C?
- FDA: Hepatitis B and C Treatments
- Hep Mag: What Kind of Doctor Should You See For Hepatitis C Treatment?