Hepatitis C, or HCV, is an inflammation of the liver that is caused by a variety of factors such as trauma and alcohol abuse. While Hepatitis C is more docile than Hepatitis B, it is more likely to lead to chronic liver disease.

HBV can be spread by exposure to infected blood. Although HCV has been reported to have spread through sexual contact and among people living together in the same home, but this risk is viewed as very low. HCV does not usually spread via casual contact.

The most common way to contract Hepatitis C is the sharing of drug needles. Other less common means of becoming infected with HCV include: sharing razor blades, toothbrushes or nail clippers with an infected person, medical professionals exposed to blood accidentally, exposure to unsanitary tattoo or piercing equipment, and engaging in high-risk sexual activity such as unprotected anal sex. There was some risk in the late eighties and early nineties of getting HCV through a blood transfusion, but since 1992 all blood is screened for the virus before it is donated.

Hepatitis C has two stages: acute and chronic. Acute HCV is short-term while chronic HCV is long-term and ongoing.

History of Hepatitis C

Hepatitis has always been known as an inflammation of the liver, but it was not until the 1940’s that the virus was discovered as being the culprit of the inflammation.

Some experts believe that HCV has been around for 35 million years, although its exact origins are unknown. Because of the nature by which the virus is spread (blood to blood contact), it has been quite slow to spread and evolve.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were many developments in identifying Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. But it was not until the late 1980’s that Hepatitis C was identified. Blood banks began screening for HCV in 1990, but there was not a test that could comprehensively test the blood for HCV until 1992. Approximately 300,000 Americans have contracted HCV through blood transfusions.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

Many people do not experience any symptoms related to their infection of HCV. People with both acute and chronic Hepatitis C can live for years or even decades without ever knowing that they have been infected. An asymptomatic infected individual can pass the virus to someone else. Just because there are no signs of HCV, it does not mean that transmission is impossible. If symptoms do occur, early on they can include: headaches, muscle aches, fever, fatigue, stomach soreness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting diarrhea, mood swings, and mental fatigue.

In later stages the symptoms can include the following: very dark brownish-colored urine, clay-colored stools, abdominal pain, and jaundice (yellowing of skin and the whites of the eyes).

Diagnosing Hepatitis C

HBV can be diagnosed with a procedure that can identify the antibody associated with HCV. This antibody is present in almost 50 percent of people with acute HCV and almost everyone with chronic HCV. Other tests can determine if there has been damage to the liver, and a liver biopsy can be conducted to learn how extensive that damage is.

Treatment for Hepatitis C

Since Hepatitis C has no real treatment course, doctors usually recommend that infected persons stay hydrated, get plenty of rest, follow a healthy diet, and abstain from alcoholic beverages.

The individuals that are chronic carriers of HCV are treated with a synthetic form of the protein interferon. This can help reduce symptoms associated with the virus as well as improve liver function. Unfortunately, the side effects associated with this drug can include fever, headache, and flu-like symptoms. This drug can be used in conjunction with ribavirin for a more complete course of treatment. Approximately 10 to 40 percent of patients are successful in reducing symptoms and improving liver function by taking this treatment course.

People that have mild to severe acute Hepatitis C start to feel better within a few weeks and are completely recovered within 2 months.

What Happens if Hepatitis C Goes Untreated?

HCV is associated with a virus that infects the liver. Your liver is a very important organ and you need it to carry out all of its main functions. The liver filters out any toxins that enter the bloodstream, it helps to absorb nutrients from different foods, and it controls bleeding.

If Hepatitis C is not treated, the liver can start to dysfunction and develop many problems such as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure, and the only way to correct this is to have a liver transplant. About 20 percent of people with chronic Hepatitis C develop cirrhosis.

Preventing Hepatitis C

About 1 in 10 people with HCV do not know how they contracted it. Taking cautionary preventative measures are very important to lower your risk of infection.

Unlike Hepatitis B, there is no vaccine that exists for Hepatitis C. However, there are ways to prevent individuals from contracting the virus:

  • Avoiding sharing drug needles, even only one time
  • Avoiding the blood and bodily fluids from infected people (this includes oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse)
  • Avoiding sharing items that may contain blood such as toothbrushes, nail clippers and razor blades from infected people
  • Using latex condoms during intercourse can greatly reduce the risk of vaginal or semen secretions transferring from the infected individual
  • Get tested! The earlier you know if you are infected, the easier it will be to start an ongoing treatment course

Who Is at Risk for Contracting Hepatitis C?

The following includes those people that are at a higher risk of contracting Hepatitis C:

  • Intravenous (IV) drug users
  • People engaging in high-risk sexual behavior
  • Individuals who engage in intercourse or drug related behaviors after being intoxicated
  • People that have received blood products prior to 1992
  • People who have been on chronic renal dialysis
  • People with consistently negative liver function tests
  • People with excessive exposure to alcohol
  • Medical professional treating infected persons who do not use proper precaution

Statistics about Hepatitis C

The following are some important statistics about Hepatitis C:

  • 36,000 new cases of Hepatitis C are reported annually
  • 1 in 1,813 people are infected a year
  • There are 3.9 million chronic HCV carriers in the United States
  • 80 percent of people who share drug needles are infected with HCV
  • 70 percent of HCV carriers will develop chronic liver disease, even if they are asymptomatic
  • Only 15 percent are acute HCV carriers
  • 85 percent of Hepatitis C carriers end up having chronic HCV
  • There are between 8,000 and 10,000 HCV related deaths annually in the United States

This Vaccine Information Statement courtesy of:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Immunization Program

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