What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that is passed through contaminated blood. Up to 85% of adults exposed to the hepatitis C virus (HCV) do not clear the virus naturally and become chronically infected. When left untreated, chronic HCV infection can lead to liver inflammation, liver scarring (fibrosis or cirrhosis), liver cancer, or even liver failure.
As many as half of people with chronic hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. For this reason, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all adults ages 18-79 be screened for Hepatitis C at least once in their lifetime.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?
Many Hepatitis C patients feel well until this virus has caused significant liver damage. Ultimately, symptoms may include:
- Bleeding or bruising easily
- Poor appetite
- Yellow discoloration of the skin (jaundice)
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin (pruritis)
- Fluid collecting in the abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in the legs (edema)
- Muscle loss (sarcopenia)
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Visible blood vessels in the skin (spider angiomas)
How is Hepatitis C diagnosed?
Hepatitis C is relatively easy to diagnose via a combination of blood tests that look for antibodies against the virus, and the presence of copies of viral RNA.
The hepatitis C virus spreads when blood contaminated with the virus enters the bloodstream of an uninfected person.The virus itself exists in seven distinct forms known as “genotypes.” Treatment medications and duration may vary depending on the HCV genotype of the patient.
Your risk of contracting hepatitis C is increased if you:
- are a health care worker who has been exposed to infected blood
- have injected or inhaled illicit drugs such as heroin or cocaine
- are infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
- received a piercing or tattoo in an unclean environment using unsterile equipment
- received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- have received hemodialysis treatments
- were born to a woman with a hepatitis C infection
- were ever in prison
- were born between 1945 and 1965, the age group with the highest incidence of hepatitis C infection
Hepatitis C infection that continues for many years can cause significant complications:
- Scarring of the liver (fibrosis) or severe scarring of the liver (cirrhosis): After decades of hepatitis C infection, fibrosis or cirrhosis may occur. Scarring of the liver can cause symptoms and/or liver dysfunction.
- Liver cancer
- Liver failure: Advanced cirrhosis may cause the liver to stop functioning entirely. HCV cirrhosis resulting in liver failure is a common indication for needing a liver transplant.
How is Hepatitis C treated?
Until recently, Hepatitis C treatment consisted of months of injections and oral medications that were poorly tolerated due to severe side effects. However, science has advanced significantly. Currently, chronic HCV is largely curable with well tolerated oral medications that are taken for two to six months. Curing Hepatitis C nearly eliminates the risk of developing any severe complications.
Prevention is important as well. Protect yourself from hepatitis C infection by taking the following precautions:
- Don’t use illicit drugs.
- Be cautious about body piercing and tattooing. If you choose to undergo piercing or tattooing, look for a reputable shop. Ask questions about how the equipment is cleaned and make sure the employees use sterile needles.
- Practice safe sex. Don’t engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners or with any partner whose health status is uncertain. Sexual transmission between monogamous couples may occur, but the risk is very low.
Our experienced team of physicians and advanced practice providers at Associates in Gastroenterology can help you with your concerns and questions, and management of all aspects of gastrointestinal and liver disease. We would love to be your gastroenterology practice-please schedule an appointment either by calling us (719-635-7321) or through this website today.
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