HEPATITIS C

DEFINITION

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

CAUSES

Hepatitis C virus is carried in the blood of people infected with the virus. It is primarily spread through contact with infected blood, such as:

  • Injecting illicit drugs with shared needles
  • Receiving HCV-infected blood transfusions (before 1992) or blood clotting products (before 1987)
  • Receiving an HCV-infected organ transplant
  • Receiving long-term kidney dialysis treatment (dialysis machine can be tainted with HCV-infected blood)
  • Sharing toothbrushes, razors, nail-clippers or other personal hygiene items that have HCV-infected blood on them
  • Being accidentally stuck by an HCV-infected needle (a concern for health care workers)
  • Frequent contact with HCV-infected people (a concern for health care workers)
  • Receiving a tattoo, body piercing, or acupuncture with unsterilized or improperly sterilized equipment

Hepatitis C can also spread through:

  • An HCV-infected mother to her baby at the time of birth
  • Sexual contact with someone infected with HCV
  • Sharing a straw, when inhaling drugs, with someone infected by HCV
  • Receiving a blood transfusion

HCV cannot spread through:

  • The air
  • Unbroken skin
  • Casual social contact
  • Breast feeding

RISK FACTORS

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

  • Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
  • Receiving blood clotting products before 1987
  • Long-term kidney dialysis treatment
  • Tattooing
  • Body piercing
  • Injecting illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
  • Having sex with partners who have other sexually transmitted diseases

SYMPTOMS

Eighty percent of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms. However, over time, the disease can cause serious liver damage.

Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Darker colored urine
  • Abdominal pain
  • Aches and pains
  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Joint pain
  • Cigarette smokers may suddenly dislike the taste of cigarettes
  • Loose, light-colored stools
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Chronic hepatitis C infection may cause some of the above symptoms, as well as:

  • Weakness
  • Severe fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Serious complications of hepatitis C infection include:

  • The possibility that the infection will become chronic, leading to progressive liver failure
  • Increased risk of liver cancer

DIAGNOSIS

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The doctor will also want to discuss your risk factors for hepatitis C.

Tests may include:

Blood Tests – to look for hepatitis C antibodies or genetic material from the virus (The antibodies are proteins that your body has made to fight the hepatitis C virus.)

Liver Biopsy – removal of a sample of liver tissue to be examined

TREATMENT

Hepatitis C is treated with medications, including:

  • Interferon, given by injection
  • Ribavirin, given orally
  • A combination of interferon and ribavirin

These medications have limited success rates and can cause difficult side effects.

Even with treatment, hepatitis C infection may not clear up within 6 months. Over a long period of time, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious liver damage. In rare cases a liver transplant may be needed.

PREVENTION

To prevent becoming infected with hepatitis C:

  • Do not inject illicit drugs, especially with shared needles. Seek help to stop using drugs.
  • Do not have sex with partners who have sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Practice safe sex (using latex condoms) or abstain from sex.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners.
  • Avoid sharing personal hygiene products (toothbrushes, etc.).
  • Avoid handling items that may be contaminated by HCV-infected blood.
  • Donate your own blood before elective surgery to be used if you need a blood transfusion.

To prevent spreading hepatitis C to others if you are infected:

  • Tell your dentist and physician before receiving check-ups or treatment.
  • Get both a hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccination.
  • Do not donate blood or organs for transplant.

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