It is estimated that 2.7 million to 3.9 million people in the United Stated have chronic hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a liver disease that originates as a virus similar to hepatitis A and B, but it affects the liver differently.
People can experience hepatitis C acutely or chronically. Acute hepatitis C means that within six months of exposure to the hepatitis C virus, a person can experience what seems like a short-term illness from infection. For a majority of people however, the infection becomes chronic.
Chronic hepatitis C occurs when the virus stays inside a person’s body and causes long-term illness, and seriously affects a person’s quality of life. The virus can last throughout a person’s lifetime and later cause liver scarring (cirrhosis) or liver cancer.
Acute hepatitis C can be tricky because about 70-80 percent of people do not experience any symptoms. Some people may have mild or severe symptoms soon after being exposed.
Symptoms of hepatitis C include:
- Appetite loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Urine that appears dark in color
- Bowel movements that are “clay-colored”
- Yellowing in the skin or eyes (known as Jaundice)
- Pain in the abdomen
The United States Preventative Task Force (USPSTF) recommends one-time screening for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection for adults 18 to 79 years old. You should also consider being tested for hepatitis C if ANY circumstances listed below might apply to you:
- You have been treated for blood clotting before 1987
- You had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992
- You tested abnormally for liver disease
- You work in health care or related field and were exposed to blood via needle or other sharp object
- You have HIV
Ongoing testing for Hepatitis C infection is necessary for patients who have these risk factors:
- A history of IV drug use
- You are a man who has sex with men who have HIV or are on pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV
- You were incarcerated
- You are being treated for long-term hemodialysis
People are typically diagnosed with hepatitis C via blood tests. A person will be screened for antibodies against hepatitis C, and if they test positive, it means that at some point the person was exposed to the virus. From there, your doctor may have a second test done to confirm whether the virus is still present in the bloodstream.
A FibroScan®, also called transient elastography, may also be another type of test used to diagnosis Hepatitis C. This is a non-invasive and painless test which is used to assess liver stiffness. This test is conducted in your doctor’s office.
Hepatitis C is contracted when the blood from a person already infected with the virus enters the body of a person who is not infected. The most common way people become infected is through sharing needles or similar equipment to administer drugs.
Other possible ways people can get infected is if they come into blood-on-blood contact with an infected person, such as sharing a razor or toothbrush. Though the risk of contraction is low, having any sexual contact with an infected person can also transmit the virus. An infant can contract hepatitis C if he/she is born to a mother who has the virus. About six in every 100 babies born to a mother with hepatitis C actually become infected.
Both acute and chronic hepatitis C are treatable. In about 25 percent of people, acute hepatitis C will clear up on its own. For others, acute hepatitis C is treated with the same medications as chronic hepatitis C, and the treatment does not guarantee that the acute hepatitis C will not become chronic. Chronic hepatitis C is treated with medications in accordance with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Currently, there is no vaccination to prevent hepatitis C like there is for hepatitis A and B.
Daily management tips
If you see any blood spills, including dry blood, and suspect that a person may have hepatitis C, you should clean up the spill using a solution made up partially of household bleach and water in a 1:10 ratio respectively. Wear gloves at all times when dealing with a blood spill.
Keep in mind that hepatitis C can survive at room temperature and on surfaces for up to three weeks.
The best thing people with hepatitis C can do is take care of their liver, in addition to being regularly monitored by their doctor. Taking care of the liver can include:
- Avoiding alcohol
- Checking before taking any prescription medications
- If liver damage is already present, a person should look into being vaccinated against hepatitis A and B with his/her doctor.