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Hepatitis C

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Hepatitis C Overview

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is carried in the blood of infected people.

According to various estimates, anywhere from 3 to 10 million people in the United States are carriers of the virus. One reason for this is because the virus wasn't even diagnosed until the late 1980s. In fact, a majority of carriers are still unaware of their HCV status.

Hepatitis C is serious for some people, but not for others. Most people who get hepatitis C carry the virus for the rest of their lives. The majority will experience some liver damage, but may not feel sick from the disease.

Some people with liver damage, due to hepatitis C, may develop cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and liver failure, which may take many years to develop.

Causes of hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is primarily spread through contact with infected blood, such as:

  • Injecting illicit drugs with shared needles
  • Receiving HCV-infected blood transfusions (before 1992) or blood clotting products (before 1987)
  • Receiving an HCV-infected organ transplant
  • Receiving long-term kidney dialysis treatment (dialysis machines can be tainted with HCV-infected blood)
  • Sharing toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, or other personal hygiene items that have HCV-infected blood on them
  • Being accidentally stuck by an HCV-infected needle or having frequent contact with HCV-infected people (concerns for health care workers)
  • Receiving a tattoo, body piercing, or acupuncture with unsterilized, or improperly sterilized, equipment

Hepatitis C can also spread through:

  • An HCV-infected mother to her baby at the time of birth
  • Sexual contact with someone infected with HCV
  • Sharing a straw when inhaling drugs, such as cocaine, with someone infected by HCV
  • Receiving a transfusion of HCV-contaminated blood

HCV cannot spread through:

  • The air
  • Unbroken skin
  • Casual social contact
  • Breastfeeding

Risks factors of hepatitis C

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

Risk factors that may increase your chance of getting hepatitis C include:

  • Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
  • Receiving blood clotting products before 1987
  • Having long-term kidney dialysis treatment
  • Getting tattoos or body piercings
  • Injecting illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
  • Having sex with partners who have other sexually transmitted diseases

Diagnosing Hepatitis C

While the hepatitis C virus (HCV) can be detected in blood between one to three weeks after the initial exposure, 80 percent of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms and go undiagnosed. Within approximately 50 days, most will begin to develop liver cell injury, although they will be asymptomatic (symptom-free).

About 15 percent of those exposed to HCV will clear their system of the virus within six months.

The remaining 85 percent will develop some level of chronic hepatitis C. Over time, this can cause serious liver damage, although the rate of progression can vary significantly from individual to individual.

Symptoms of hepatitis C

Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Aches and pains
  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Joint pain
  • Darker colored urine
  • Loose, light-colored stool
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

And, cigarette smokers may suddenly dislike the taste of cigarettes.

In addition to some of the above symptoms, chronic hepatitis C infection may also cause:

  • Weakness
  • Severe fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Testing for hepatitis C

To diagnose hepatitis C, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.

Your doctor will also want to discuss your risk factors for hepatitis C.

Tests may include:

  • Blood tests — to look for hepatitis C antibodies (proteins that your body has made to fight the hepatitis C virus) or genetic material from the virus
  • Liver biopsy — removal of a sample of liver tissue to be examined

Complications of hepatitis C

Serious complications of hepatitis C infection include:

  • The possibility that the infection will become chronic, leading to progressive liver failure
  • Increased risk of liver cancer
  • Cirrhosis

Within about 20 years of exposure, approximately 20 percent of individuals develop cirrhosis, which leads to end-stage liver disease. Alcohol use can dramatically speed the onset of cirrhosis.

Hepatitis C Treatment

Hepatitis C is treated with the following medicines:

  • Interferon, given by injection
  • Ribavirin, given orally
  • Combination of interferon and ribavirin

These medicines have limited success rates and can cause difficult side effects.

Even with treatment, hepatitis C may not clear up within six months.

Over a long period of time, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious liver damage. In rare cases, a liver transplant may be necessary.

Learn more about treatments at the UPMC Liver Cancer Center.

Hepatitis C Prevention

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is spread, primarily, through contact with infected blood.

To prevent becoming infected with hepatitis C:

  • Do not inject illicit drugs, especially with shared needles. Seek help to stop using drugs.
  • Do not have sex with partners who have sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Practice safe sex (using latex condoms) or abstain from sex.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners.
  • Avoid sharing personal hygiene products that might have blood on them, such as:
        • Razors
        • Toothbrushes
        • Nail clippers
        • Pierced earrings
  • Avoid handling items that may be contaminated by HCV-infected blood.
  • Donate your own blood before elective surgery for use if you need a blood transfusion.

If you have hepatitis C

If you have hepatitis C, you can prevent the spread of your infection by:

  • Telling your dentist and doctors before receiving checkups or treatment.
  • Getting both hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations.
  • Never donating blood or organs for transplant.

Contact the UPMC Liver Cancer Center

To schedule an appointment, or for more information, call the UPMC Liver Cancer Center, toll-free, at 1-855-745-4837.


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