Hepatitis C is a virus which causes liver disease. Because symptoms often don't show up for many years, you might have the virus and never know.
Eventually, if it is not treated, the virus causes liver damage and in some cases cirrhosis or liver cancer. It is estimated that over 3 million people in the United States have hepatitis C and 17,000 people contract the virus each year.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Many people have hepatitis C for many years without ever developing any symptoms. If you have acute hepatitis C, which occurs within the first six months after contracting the virus, you might experience symptoms such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine
- Gray colored stools
- Joint pain
- Jaundice - yellow skin or eyes
Between 15 and 25 percent of people clear the virus on their own, without ever receiving treatment. The majority, however, develop chronic hepatitis C. While symptoms may not develop, it can still cause damage to the liver. Eventually, liver damage can cause symptoms such as vomiting blood, abdominal pain and swelling, confusion, and yellow skin or eyes.
Who Is at Risk?
Hepatitis C is spread through the blood. You can contract the virus if the blood of someone infected with hepatitis C enters your bloodstream. Some of the ways this occurs include:
- Sharing needles to inject illicit drugs
- Sharing personal hygiene products such as razors, clippers, toothbrushes
- Needle-stick injury when working in a health care field
- Receiving tattoos or body piercing with unsanitized equipment
While it is possible to spread hepatitis C through sex, this rarely happens. However, if you have multiple partners or engage in rough sex, your risk increases. While anyone can get hepatitis C, two out of three infected people were born between 1945 and 1965.
Testing for hepatitis C is not a routine test, however, if you are in a high-risk group, you should discuss this with your doctor. High-risk groups include people who:
- Were born between 1945 and 1965
- Ever injected drugs
- Have HIV
- Show signs of liver disease
- Received or donated blood or organs prior to 1992
- Have been exposed to hepatitis C-infected blood
- Have received hemodialysis
If you have hepatitis C, it is important to take precautions to minimize the risk of spreading the disease to those around you. Always clean and cover any cuts or scratches. Always let health care professionals know you have hepatitis C.
Diagnosing Hepatitis C
An initial blood test will let you know if you have been exposed to hepatitis C. Because the antibodies stay in your system, even if you have cleared the virus, a positive test doesn't necessarily say whether the virus is active. If your blood test shows that you have hepatitis C antibodies, your doctor will request additional testing to confirm active infection with hepatitis C. These tests help determine the amount of virus and the type of hepatitis C virus you have as well as whether you have any liver damage.
Not everyone who has hepatitis C needs treatment. If your doctor determines you can benefit from treatment, you might be prescribed antiviral medications. Currently there are effective treatments that cure hepatitis C, but these medications have side effects and you should talk to your doctors about the side effects of these medications.
Long Term Care
Many people who receive treatment for hepatitis C clear the virus from their system. This treatment, however, does not prevent you from becoming reinfected. To protect your liver from damage:
- Avoid alcohol
- Talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications, vitamins or supplements
- Get vaccinated for hepatitis A and B
Your doctor might recommend regular liver screenings to monitor any liver damage. It is also important to know the signs of liver damage or disease and talk with your doctor should you experience any symptoms.
This article was reviewed by Mandana Khalili, MD, April 3, 2014
"Hepatitis C: General Information," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Department of Health & Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication # 21-1075
"Hepatitis C: Living with Chronic Hepatitis C," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Department of Health & Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication # 220409