Hepatitis C is a disease that causes inflammation and infection in the liver. This condition develops after being infected with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV).
There are two forms of hepatitis C: acute and chronic. Acute hepatitis C causes symptoms to set in quickly, whereas chronic hepatitis C develops over a period of months, so symptoms may not be apparent at first. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that over 130 to 170 million people have chronic hepatitis C (WHO).
Unlike hepatitis A and B, hepatitis C has no vaccination, although efforts to create one are ongoing. Hepatitis C is highly contagious, which is why such a high number of people have the disease. According to WHO, this disease is found worldwide, with Egypt having the highest percentage of chronic hepatitis C cases (WHO).
Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood contaminated with the hepatitis C virus.
It can be spread through:
- organ transplants
- blood transfusions
- sharing personal items (razors, toothbrushes)
- touching contaminated blood
- sharing drug needles
- mother to baby during birth
Some forms of hepatitis are spread sexually, but hepatitis C is less likely to be spread through sexual means than the other forms.
Hepatitis C develops after becoming infected with the hepatitis C virus. People who are at high risk for developing hepatitis C include:
- those who had a blood transfusion before 1992
- those who have received an organ transplant
- those who have received clotting factor concentrates or other blood products before 1987
- those who have received hemodialysis treatment for a long period of time
- those born to a mother with hepatitis
- those who have used drug needles contaminated with infected blood
- those who have injected illegal drugs
- dark urine
- loss of appetite
- abdominal discomfort or pain
- joint pain
Symptoms may not show up right away, and can take between six and seven weeks to appear.
Based on the symptoms alone, your doctor may not have enough evidence to diagnose you with hepatitis C. It’s very important to let your doctor know if you’ve been exposed to hepatitis C.
If your doctor suspects that you have the condition, he or she may order a series of blood tests to check for signs of the hepatitis C virus. Blood tests can also measure the amount of hepatitis C virus in your blood. If you’re infected, a genotyping test can be used to see which treatment will work for you.
If your doctor thinks you may have liver damage, he or she will prescribe a liver function test. This test checks your urine and blood for signs of heightened enzymes from your liver. This helps your doctor determine if there is any damage.
Another test that can be used to check for liver damage is a liver biopsy. A liver biopsy involves the doctor taking a tiny bit of tissue from your liver. This tissue is then tested for cell abnormalities.
There are several options for treating hepatitis C, but treatment is usually reserved for those with serious liver involvement and scarring and no other conditions that prevent treatment. Your doctor may decide if anti-viral treatment is likely to provide more benefit than harm. Doctors recommend bed rest to help your body gain the energy it needs to fight off the disease.
They may also create a nutrition plan to keep you from getting malnourished or dehydrated. According to the Mayo Clinic, some people with hepatitis C do not need treatment because they have only minor liver abnormalities. If that is the case, your doctor will probably want to monitor your liver function with regular blood tests (Mayo).
Complications from hepatitis C are:
- liver scarring
- liver cancer
- liver transplant
Complications of hepatitis C usually arise from chronic hepatitis C.
Prevent contracting the hepatitis C virus by:
- making sure you wash your hands after coming into contact with surfaces or shaking hands with people
- having your sexual partner tested for hepatitis C
- avoiding the use of illegal drugs
- avoiding sharing needles with anyone
Written by: April Kahn
Published on Aug 20, 2012
Medically reviewed by Peter Rudd, MD