Contributed by – Preksha Buttan
Generally, hepatitis means liver inflammation. Although there are many types of hepatitis infections, hepatitis C infection is the most dreaded one because most of the people living with it don’t even know that they have the virus until it’s too late. Baby boomers – the people born between 1945 and 1965 – are especially at risk because they grew before doctors knew about the virus and started taking preventive measures like not sharing vials of medicine among patients. Therefore, here we have compiled all the basic information that you should have about the hepatitis C virus so that you’re able to seek timely treatment in case you get infected.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) which spreads through contaminated blood. The infection caused can be both acute or chronic, meaning that some patients may have mild illness while for others the illness can be serious and lifelong. Hepatitis C virus results in liver swelling and dysfunction and over time, this inflammation can cause some serious damage to the liver. It is also one of the major causes of liver cancer.
The hepatitis C virus infects people in different ways. Therefore, hepatitis C infection can be classified into different stages depending on the severity. They are:
- Incubation period – The incubation period is the time between the first exposure to the virus and the start of the disease. It can take anywhere from 14 to 80 days for the symptoms to start appearing.
- Acute hepatitis C – About 30% of people get an acute infection which means that they are able to clear the virus from their body within 6 months of getting infected. In this type of infection, there’s no risk of long-term or life-threatening complications.
- Chronic hepatitis C – Remaining 70% of infections are termed chronic if the body is unable to clear the virus from the body within 6 months. This type of infection can lead to long term serious health issues.
- Cirrhosis – Chronic hepatitis C infection leads to cirrhosis. In it, your healthy liver cells are replaced by scar tissues which hinder liver functions. Usually, it takes about 20 to 30 years to happen, but habits like drinking alcohol or having an HIV infection can speed up the process.
- Liver cancer – Cirrhosis increases the risk of liver cancer. Since there are no symptoms in the early stages of liver cancer, the only way to detect it on time to get tested regularly.
[Also read – 10 early signs of liver damage]
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C infection?
Hepatitis C infection is called the silent killer because most people don’t notice any symptoms unless some liver damage has already happened. Those who are symptomatic may exhibit the following symptoms of hepatitis C infection:
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach pain
- Clay-colored poop
- Dark urine
How does the hepatitis C virus spread?
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne infection. It means that its risk increases when you get in contact with blood contaminated with the virus.
These are a few common ways of hepatitis C transmission:
- Sharing needles, syringes, or any equipment to inject drugs.
- An infected mother passing the virus to the child at the time of birth.
- Healthcare professionals not following proper hygiene practices.
- Getting tattoos or piercing in informal settings or with non-sterile instruments.
- Sharing personal items like razors, nail clippers, or toothbrushes.
- Through blood transfusion or organ transplants, especially which are before 1992.
- Having sex, especially if you have HIV.
How is hepatitis C infection diagnosed?
Since hepatitis C infection is usually asymptomatic until it gets severe, only a few people are diagnosed with recent infection. In those people who develop chronic hepatitis C infection and symptoms of liver damage have started to appear, two hepatitis C blood tests are done to identify the infection. These are:
- Anti-HCV antibody test to identify the people who have been infected.
- If the anti-HCV test results come out to be positive, an HCV RNA test is needed to confirm the infection as those people also who had an acute infection and have now cleared the virus from the system on their own also test positive for an anti-HCV antibody test.
After HCV infection is confirmed, you should also get a liver function test done to assess the degree of liver damage. It helps in understanding and planning the future course of action.
[Also read – How can alcohol damage your liver]
What are the complications of hepatitis C infection?
Acute hepatitis C infection doesn’t cause any complications as your body usually clears it on its own without any external help. But in chronic hepatitis C, complications such as liver cirrhosis or scarring of the liver, liver cancer, and complete liver failure are there. Though it would take years for your liver to reach this state, these complications are long term and can be fatal.
Is there a cure for hepatitis C infection?
The aim of hepatitis C treatment is to cure. Basically, your healthcare provider will monitor your condition and symptoms closely. On the basis of that, your treatment will be planned which usually includes medicines for several months. A liver transplant is also needed sometimes if there’s severe liver damage. The goal of these antiviral medications is to reach a condition called sustained virologic response. In it, if you test negative for three months after the course of treatment is complete, you are considered cured.
[Also read – Foods good to cleanse your liver]
Is hepatitis C prevention possible?
Unfortunately, there’s no effective hepatitis C vaccine. Therefore, the only way to prevent this infection is by reducing the risk of exposure to the virus. Some of the ways to do that can be:
- Using all kinds of injections safely and appropriately.
- Not sharing personal care equipment like razors and toothbrushes.
- Getting tattoo, piercing, or manicure from a hygienic place.
- Practicing safe sex.
- Quitting alcohol.
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