The Knowledge You Need For Prevention
According to the U.S. Department of Health, hepatitis C is an infectious disease that affects over 4 million people in the United States alone. Often beginning as acute and symptomless, the hepatitis C virus (HCV) can lead to chronic liver conditions. In a recently published study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that hepatitis C now causes more deaths than the AIDS virus. Becoming better informed about this infectious disease can go a long way toward protecting yourself against HCV.
What is Hepatitis C?
Simply defined, hepatitis is liver inflammation. Although inflammation has many causes, the term “hepatitis” is most commonly heard in relation to the hepatitis A, B and C viruses.
While hepatitis A, B and C all affect the liver, each is caused by a separate virus and is transmitted differently to the body. Hepatitis A typically lasts only a few months, while hepatitis B may develop into a chronic disease. Vaccinations are available for both hepatitis A and B, but no vaccination exists for hepatitis C. This results in a much higher rate of occurrence for HCV. Hepatitis C is perhaps the most serious, and certainly the most deadly, of the hepatitis viruses. The Viral Hepatitis Action Coalition reports that 8,000 to 10,000 people die in the United States every year from hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C may affect the body acutely or chronically. Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. Sufferers of acute HCV should continue taking preventive measures against chronic HCV. According the CDC, around 75 to 85 percent of acute hepatitis C cases will eventually evolve into the chronic form of hepatitis C.
Chronic hepatitis C is a longer-lasting illness that occurs when the hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body. Constant inflammation of the liver can lead to cirrhosis, a build-up of scar tissue that cripples the liver and limits its normal function.
“Cirrhosis occurs after about 25 to 30 years of infection, but it can be earlier if a patient has moderate to heavy alcohol ingestion with active hepatitis C or has other chronic liver diseases,” says Dr. Chirag Patel, a liver diseases specialist with Galen Medical Group.
In more severe cases, chronic HCV can result in liver cancer and liver failure. The effects of chronic HCV can be devastating and irreversible. According to the CDC, one to five percent of suffers will die from the consequences of chronic infection.
How Do You Get it?
“Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease predominantly transmitted through injection drug use,” says Dr. Patel. There is often confusion associated with the transfer of hepatitis C. You cannot contract HCV through everyday physical contact, hugging, kissing or cold symptoms, such as coughing.
Hepatitis C is transmitted exclusively through contact with the infected blood or certain bodily fluids of a person suffering from hepatitis C.
The CDC reports that HCV is most commonly transmitted by injecting drugs with contaminated needles or sharing needles with someone infected with HCV. Use of unsterilized needles for tattoos and piercings also increases a person’s risk for HCV.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a person may be at risk of HCV if he or she had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992. In 1992, doctors began implementing a test to determine whether blood used in transfusions and transplants was infected with the hepatitis C virus.
According to the CDC, children born to a woman with hepatitis C are at risk of contracting the disease. It is possible to transmit HCV during sex, but it is not common.
What are Symptoms of Hepatitis C?
It is notoriously difficult for doctors to diagnose acute forms of hepatitis C because most people with HCV often do not experience any symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they usually begin six to seven weeks after the initial infection. “Acute hepatitis C usually presents as flulike symptoms, like fever, fatigue, malaise or generalized body pain,” says Dr. Patel. “It is hard to differentiate from comon flu unless associated with jaundice (yellow skin coloration).” If you experience these symptoms and think you may have hepatitis C, you should consult your family doctor or general practitioner.
How Can I Know if I Have Hepatitis C?
Early detection can make the difference between an easily treatable infection and a chronic liver disease. When testing for HCV, your doctor will do a blood screening test to see if your blood contains anti- HCV antibodies. These antibodies confirm for your physician that you were at one point exposed to the hepatitis C virus. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that anti-HCV antibodies can be found four to ten weeks after infection.
If a person tests positive for anti-HCV antibodies, a doctor will run secondary tests to search his or her blood for the hepatitis C virus. This is because it is possible to be HCV-free and have anti-HCV antibodies present in your system. A doctor may also recommend a liver biopsy to determine the severity of the disease and guide treatment options. If a doctor diagnoses you with HCV, he or she will likely refer you to an infectious disease specialist or a liver specialist (hepatologist).
How is Hepatitis C Treated?
Hepatitis C can be cured, and researchers are continually developing new methods of treatment. Most people who are treated for hepatitis C will take a combination of two drugs: interferon and ribavirin.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, this combination of medications is effective in 40 to 80 percent of patients. Interferon is administered in a weekly shot that boosts the immune system, making it harder for the hepatitis C virus to reproduce. Ribavirin, which is taken orally twice daily, is an antiviral drug that interferes with the virus’s ability to replicate. Ribavirin will not treat hepatitis C unless it it taken with another medication.
Side effects of each medication can be different for each person. They may include depression, nausea and mood swings. It is vital that women recieving these medications take measures to prevent pregnancy—both medications have been proven to cause severe birth defects. Continual blood tests are a necessary part of treating HCV. A doctor will take blood tests to gauge the efficacy of treatment and monitor the infection. After six months of testing negative for the HCV virus, a patient is considered cured.
Although hepatitis C is a serious and contagious disease, there is reason for hope. Scientists are working on a potential HCV vaccination and are conducting more research to develop further treatments. “Current treatment has a very good chance of success, but multiple companies are working on new products and easier treatment,” says Dr. Patel. “At this point, more than 20 new agents are in trial phase to find non-interferon-based treatments with less side effects.” If you have hepatitis C, you are not alone.
Millions of people suffer from hepatitis C and are recovering every day. To find a HCV support group in Chattanooga, visit www.liverfoundation.org.