Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus. Most patients will have little or no symptoms when they get infected.
What Is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. The liver serves many functions in the body including detoxification, digestion, protection against infection, protein and hormone production, and many more. Heavy alcohol use, certain medications, toxins, and infections can cause hepatitis. Persistent hepatitis can lead to scarring of the liver called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis occurs when the liver has been severely damaged. A cirrhotic liver does not function as well as a healthy liver and can result in complications such as bleeding from the esophagus and stomach, yellowing of the skin (jaundice), and fluid accumulation in the abdomen.
What Is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus. Most patients will have little or no symptoms when they get infected. Often, patients can have hepatitis C for many years without knowing they have it. About 80 % of patients who get hepatitis C do not clear the infection on their own. When infection persists for over 6 months, this is called chronic hepatitis C. Hepatitis C slowly damages the liver over decades, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. The virus exists worldwide.
How Is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?
A blood test diagnoses hepatitis C. One blood test detects the presence of an antibody directed against the virus and the second test measures the amount of virus in your blood. A liver ultrasound is usually done to assess for cirrhosis or signs of liver cancer. Often, a FibroScan is also performed. This is a specialized machine that measures the degree of fibrosis (scarring) in your liver.
How Is Hepatitis C Transmitted?
Most people do not know how they acquired hepatitis C. The virus is spread by contact with blood. Today, the most common way people get Hepatitis C is by sharing used needles, syringes, or any other equipment to inject drugs. Before widespread screening of blood donors in 1992, Hepatitis C was also spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Other methods of transmission are:
Hepatitis C is not transmitted by kissing or hugging, sneezing or coughing, skin to skin contact that does not involve blood, and sharing food and utensils.
Who Should Get Tested for Hepatitis C?
How Can Hepatitis C Infection Be Prevented?
Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine. Prevention of blood exposure is the main strategy. Do not share used needles or syringes. Do not share personal hygiene items that may have come into contact with a person’s infected blood such as razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, or glucose monitors. Do not get tattoos or piercings from an unlicensed facility.
Preventing Further Liver Damage:
If you have hepatitis C, it is essential to avoid other insults to your liver. Avoid heavy alcohol consumption and get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B. Check with your healthcare provider before starting any new medications to ensure they are safe for your liver. Sometimes your doctor will need to evaluate you for other liver diseases as well.
Is There a Cure for Hepatitis C?
Yes! The medications used to treat hepatitis C are extremely effective, up to 100 % cure rate with little to no side effects. A treatment course of 8 to12 weeks is usually sufficient to eradicate the hepatitis C virus. For some patients, a longer course of 16 or 24 weeks may be required to achieve cure. Treatment is usually prescribed by a gastroenterologist, hepatologist, infectious disease doctor or another healthcare provider trained in hepatitis C management.
Can I Get Re-Infected with Hepatitis C?
Yes, you can get infected with hepatitis C again if you are exposed to infected blood. Being cured does not mean you cannot get the virus again. If you acquired hepatitis C from engaging in high-risk behaviors, it is important to discontinue risky behaviors to avoid reinfection.
If I Am Pregnant and I Have Hepatitis C, What Should I Do?
Unfortunately, about 5 % of pregnant women pass on the virus to their baby. Currently, hepatitis C treatment has not been studied in pregnancy, so it is unknown if the drugs are safe. Therefore, it is usually best to wait until after the mother delivers before starting hepatitis C treatment. The baby will require serial blood tests to check if he or she has become infected.
If you are planning pregnancy, then it is best to get treated for hepatitis C first before you conceive.
Can I Breastfeed If I Am Infected with Hepatitis C?
Yes, you can as long as your nipples are not cracked or bleeding.
Can I Take Hepatitis C Medications If I Am Breastfeeding?
It is unknown if hepatitis C medications pass into the breastmilk. The safest approach is to complete breastfeeding before starting hepatitis C treatment. It is still possible to receive treatment for hepatitis C while breastfeeding, but it is unknown what effects the medications will have on the baby.
Last reviewed at:
20 Apr 2019 - 3 min read
Bachelor of Science, Pharmacy, Doctor of Medicine, Internal Medicine Residency, Infectious Disease Fellowship
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