What is Hepatitis C?

By Renuka Umashanker, MD, FACG and Anthony Capobianco, PA-C

  • Hepatitis C is a virus which infects the liver.
  • It is spread through direct contact with the blood of someone who is infected.
  • It is a chronic infection that lasts for many years.
  • Many people don’t know they are infected with the virus until they are tested.
  • Over many years, the infection can lead to scarring of the liver called cirrhosis.
  • In the US, approximately 3.2 million persons in the United States are infected with the virus.
  • It is most prevalent among those born during 1945–1965, the majority of whom were likely infected during the 1970s and 1980s when rates were highest.

What are the symptoms of chronic hepatitis C?

Most people with the Hepatitis C virus don’t have symptoms, though some may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pains
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss

If their Hepatitis C progresses, and they develop cirrhosis, which can make them very sick and cause symptoms such as:

  • Collection of fluid in their abdomen (ascites)
  • Swelling of the legs (edema)
  • Yellowing of their skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Confusion or difficulty in sleeping (hepatic encephalopathy)

How did I get it?

You can get Hepatitis C if you come in contact with the blood of someone who is infected. This can occur if you:

  • Share drug needles or cocaine straws.
  • Use infected needles for tattooing, acupuncture or piercings
  • Share toothbrushes, razors, or manicure tools that could have infected blood on them.
  • Received a blood transfusion before 1990.
  • Have sex with someone who is infected.
  • A pregnant woman who is infected, can also give hepatitis C to her baby.
  • Most people do not remember how they became infected.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommends that “Baby Boomers” (people born between 1945 and 1965) should be tested even if they do not have any of the previously mentioned risk factors.

How can I be tested?

Speak to your primary care provider, they may order a blood tests:

  • To test for the hepatitis C virus.
  • If positive, then further testing to determine what type of the virus (6 types) to tailor your treatment.
  • You may also be tested to see if you have any liver scarring.

How is Hepatitis C treated?

  • Treatment has improved over the past 15 years.
  • Treatments available are antiviral pills that you would take for 8 to 24 weeks, depending on the type of virus you have.
  • The chance of getting rid of this virus is greater than 90%.
  • Your primary care provider can send you to a liver specialist who has experience in all of the treatments available for the different virus types.

What can I do to keep my liver healthy?

  • Avoid alcohol use
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get Vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B (there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C)
  • Ask your PCP before taking any over-the-counter pain medication.

You should also keep those around you healthy by not sharing toothbrushes, razors or manicure tools. You can share forks, spoons, cups, and birthday cake. You should continue to hug, kiss, and touch other people, but it can be transmitted sexually, so practice safe sex techniques until you are cured.

The majority of people with hepatitis C are cured of the disease and live a healthy life.