There are six recognized hepatitis viruses, all of which impair liver function; A, B, C, D, E and G. It is estimated that 3% of the world’s population is infected with Hepatitis C. Over three quarters of those infected are symptomless and carry and spread the virus unknowingly as it often takes decades to be diagnosed, and usually only after they have experienced some degree of liver damage.
The Hepatitis C virus is transmitted through exposure to blood contaminated by the virus, often through the sharing of needles, blood transfusions, childbirth (where an infected mother may pass the virus to her baby), and sometimes through seemingly less direct ways such as sharing personal items like a toothbrush, nail file, nail clippers or a razor with an infected person. Contamination through improperly sanitized tattoo and acupuncture equipment has been documented.
It is suspected that intranasal transmission of the virus while sharing a straw for cocaine use can also occur.
The majority of people infected with Hepatitis C are baby boomers (people who were born between 1945-1965), although there is a rise in Hepatitis C diagnosis in young adults and adolescents, likely associated with intravenous drug usage. If you are a baby boomer or engage in behavior that could put you at risk, the United States Preventative Services Task Force and the CDC recommend you get tested for Hepatitis C. The presence of the virus can be detected through a simple blood test. Vaccines are available for Hepatitis A and B, but no vaccine currently exists for Hepatitis C as it is more complicated, having many subtypes, genotypes and quasispecies that often change quickly.
Very often, no obvious symptoms are present in the early stages of the infection. Some people do experience some mild issues such as poor appetite, nausea, fatigue, joint pain and sometimes a feeling of tenderness in the general area of the liver. It is not uncommon to be free of symptoms for up to thirty years. Hepatitis C often leads to cirrhosis of the liver, and possibly liver failure, liver cancer and eventually death.
Fifty percent of people who develop cirrhosis of the liver because of their Hepatitis C infection progress to liver cancer or end-stage liver disease. In the United States, liver disease’s top two causes are alcoholism followed by Hepatitis C infection, and most liver transplants are performed due to damage caused by this virus. Seeking treatment as early as possible is very important, so ask your doctor about being tested.
If the virus is detected in your bloodstream, there are several procedures and tests that can evaluate how this has impacted your liver. The liver function test (LFT) is a blood test that can determine how well or poorly your liver is functioning. Fibrotest and Fibrosure are blood tests used to determine the presence of fibrosis (scarring and stiffness) of the liver.
Similar to Fibrotest and Fibrosure, a Fibroscan may be ordered by your doctor, which utilizes sonogram technology to evaluate the level of damage the liver has been stricken with. Unfortunately, these tests are only helpful in evaluating the presence or absence of damage, not the level at which the liver is compromised if only moderately damaged. To determine exactly how your liver is functioning, a liver biopsy may be ordered. This procedure is incredibly helpful not only to determine the damage done, but to track progression of the illness.
Chronic Hepatitis C cure and treatment can be challenging. Several oral medications have now been approved to treat the virus. These Direct Antiviral Agents (DAA) have proven very effective; In persons with genotypes 1 through 6, over ninety percent of patients have been able to overcome the virus.
Treatment is a two step process. Medication is administered to eradicate the virus; success is measured by the ongoing absence of the virus three months and more after completing treatment. Meanwhile, the goal is to limit liver damage and deter progression to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer and liver decompensation that would ultimately require a liver transplant.
Treatment may not be easy, but you are not alone; it is estimated that over 170 million people on the planet carry the virus. Overcoming this illness requires the patient to be strongly committed to treatment. Side effects are different for everyone and can be unpleasant, but are worth it. Health and lifestyle changes will be necessary to get the most out of your treatment, and to continue to prevent further damage from occurring in the future.