Learn About Hepatitis C

Learn about Hepatitis C

What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a contagious disease that predominantly affects the liver, which is caused by the Hepatitis C virus. Approximately 4 million people carry the virus in the United States, according to government estimates.
Why should I get tested for Hepatitis C?
It is possible to have the virus with very mild symptoms, or no noticeable symptoms at all, as it wreaks havoc with your system. This makes Hepatitis C especially dangerous, as diagnosis often happens after a great deal of damage has been done. Often people are symptom free carriers and unwittingly transmit this bloodborne virus to others. Since Hepatitis C can act like a time bomb, silently causing long-term health issues such as liver damage, cirrhosis, and liver cancer, it is important to catch the virus in its early stages for the best treatment options.
Who should get treated for Hepatitis C?
The United States Preventative Services Task Force and The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have established that the Baby Boomer Generation (people born between 1945-1965) are at a high risk for infection and should be tested.

You should speak with your doctor about being tested if:

  • You are a Baby Boomer (birth between 1945-1965)
  • You have ever used intravenous drugs.
  • You had an organ transplant or blood transfusion prior to 1992.
  • You work in, or have worked in, the healthcare industry.
  • You have undergone dialysis for an extended period of time.
  • Your mother had the Hepatitis C virus when giving birth to you.
How does Hepatitis C affect the liver?
Once exposed to the Hepatitis C virus, it may take anywhere from 2 weeks to six months to test positive for the virus. This is called the window period. Once established, an acute infection of the Hepatitis C virus, which is often mild or symptom free, will sometimes resolve itself after a few months. Unfortunately, most people, approximately 80%, develop a chronic Hepatitis C infection. Like an acute infection, most people will not have noticeable symptoms and will continue to live normal lives until they discover they have liver damage after years of the active infection scarring their liver tissue. A chronic Hepatitis C infection can cause damage fibrosis (stiffness) in the liver, cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and eventually liver cancer. Liver transplants are common in extreme cases, but a liver transplant will not cure Hepatitis C.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?
When present, symptoms of the Hepatitis C virus are fairly mild. An upset stomach, exhaustion, some joint pain or muscle pain can occur, but 80% of people report having no symptoms. Since there is no obvious indication the virus is present, it is important to be tested as soon as possible if you feel you are at risk. After a few years or even decades, you may notice some other symptoms as damage has been done to your liver. For example- darker urine, changes in the color of your feces, and jaundice, all of which signal serious liver trouble.
How did I get Hepatitis C?
The Hepatitis C virus is a bloodborne illness. This means that transmission occurred when the contaminated blood of an infected person entered your body. There are several ways this could have happened, including:

  • From sharing needles or other paraphernalia for intravenous drug use.
  • Exposure to contaminated blood at work if you are in health care.
  • Improperly sterilized tattoo or piercing equipment.
  • From an organ transplant or blood transfusion prior to 1992.
  • Exposure from long-term kidney dialysis.
  • From childbirth, where the infection can pass from mother to baby.
  • Occasionally, from sexual contact.
Why do I need to go to a doctor?
A physician needs to perform an overall health evaluation and conduct tests to determine the state of your liver, in order to know how to proceed with treatment. Your physician may conduct:

  • A blood test to determine the presence of the virus and measure the viral load.
  • A genotype test is performed to determine which type of the Hepatitis C virus you carry.
  • Two blood tests exist to check for the presence of fibrosis in the liver- Fibrosure and Fibrotest.
  • A Liver Panel (liver function tests)- these tests can give a good indication of how well or poorly your liver is functioning. One such test is the ALT test, used frequently to determine enzyme levels as ALT levels are often elevated in patients with chronic Hepatitis C.
  • An ultrasound exam can provide your physician with a visual image of the state of your liver.
  • A Fibroscan is an imaging study technique that measures the amount of tissue stiffness and scarring (fibrosis) in the liver.
  • For the most accurate evaluation, your physician may order a biopsy of your liver. This provides the physician a tiny sample of liver tissue to examine directly, providing the clearest picture about the state of your liver.
Can Hepatitis C be cured?
New medication and treatment plans have become available, greatly improving the patient’s chances of a Hepatitis C cure. The goal of a successful treatment is to purge your system of the virus. Once the virus has been absent for a period of time (which is called a sustained viral response), you are considered cured.
How can I protect others from getting Hepatitis C?
Remember, the Hepatitis C virus is a bloodborne illness. Therefore, you cannot spread the virus by hugging, kissing, coughing, or sneezing on someone. Sharing food, water, or utensils is not dangerous. Holding hands is not an issue.

In order to protect others:

  • Do not share your personal care items that could be contaminated, such as your toothbrush, razor or nail clippers.
  • If you use intravenous drugs, speak with your doctor about rehabilitation options. If you cannot stop at this time, never share your needles or other paraphernalia with others.
  • If you have sores or cuts, always keep them covered until they have fully healed. Discard used bandages in the trash.
  • Please do not donate sperm, body tissue, organs or blood.
  • If you have sex, always use a condom.

Many of these suggestions will reduce your risk of contracting other illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases, such as the Hepatitis B virus and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), both of which could further complicate your Hepatitis C infection.

How can I prevent the Hepatitis C virus from causing serious damage to my liver?
Although the initial symptoms of a Hepatitis C infection are mild to nonexistent, eventually the virus will damage your liver. Your physician will give you a full explanation on ways to lessen the impact to your liver, but here are some tips:

  • Abstain from alcohol use. Drinking alcohol, which already does an incredible amount of damage to your liver, only compacts the issues associated with having the Hepatitis C virus. Speak with your doctor if you need assistance in order to quit drinking.
  • Vaccinate against other types of Hepatitis. No vaccine is currently available for Hepatitis C, but shots do exist for both Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.
  • Always check ingredients of supplements, over the counter medicines, herbal and natural remedies with your doctor. Even things that seem harmless on their own can prove damaging to your liver when taken together.
  • Get evaluated for the degree of damage the Hepatitis C virus has caused your liver. Tests can range from simple blood tests to a liver biopsy.
  • Speak with your physician about treatment options.
  • Your physician can direct you to support groups and organizations. It is important to be involved in your treatment.
How is chronic Hepatitis C treated?
Many factors dictate how your treatment plan will look. It is important to be evaluated by a doctor who has experience in treating chronic cases of the Hepatitis C virus. Your doctor will determine a treatment plan based on which genotype of the virus you have, the state of your liver and take into account other health related issues. If treatment via oral antiviral medication is chosen, a combination of drugs based on the genotype of the virus is used to treat your illness. With genotypes 1-6, 90% of patients who complete treatment are cured. Side effects from treatment are different for everyone and can be challenging, so it is important to commit and participate in your treatment plan.
What about alternative treatments?
Currently, the only way to manage and cure a chronic Hepatitis C infection is through prescribed medications. No vitamin or herbal supplement has been shown to be effective to treat the virus, and unfortunately sometimes these products do more harm than good as they prove to be dangerous for your liver. Always discuss the ingredients with your doctor of any natural or herbal remedy before you take them.
What is treatment like?
Depending on the genotype of the Hepatitis C virus you have, a combination of antiviral medications will be prescribed to you, to be taken anywhere from 3-6 months. Side effects can include photosensitivity, fatigue, headache and insomnia. Your doctor will discuss with you ways in which you can manage any negative side effects. For some people, the side effects are too hard for them to handle and they desire to stop treatment. It is very important to speak with your doctor before you choose to change your dosage or quit taking the medication. Every year, new antiviral medications become available to treat the Hepatitis C virus and hopefully with them will come shorter treatment times and fewer side effects.