What is Hepatitis C?

The liver’s function is to process nutrients, detoxify chemicals, filter blood, fight infections, and metabolize drugs. Hepatitis C is caused by an infection of the liver that results from the Hepatitis C virus. When the liver is infected by the virus, the liver becomes inflamed, which can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.

Hepatitis C is known as the “silent epidemic” because most people who have it don’t realize they are infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Hepatitis C causes both acute and chronic infection. “Acute” refers to the first several months after someone is infected and can range in severity from a mild illness with few or no symptoms to a serious condition requiring hospitalization. For reasons unknown, some infected people spontaneously clear the virus within six months of infection without any treatment. However, most infected people are not able to clear the virus and thus develop a lifelong infection. Treatment options are available to these people to help eliminate the virus and prevent further liver damage.

How is Hepatitis C Spread?

Hepatitis C is spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of someone who is not infected. Most people become infected by sharing needles, syringes and other drug paraphernalia. Before widespread screening of the blood supply in 1992, Hepatitis C was also spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. While uncommon, poor infection control has resulted in outbreaks in healthcare settings. Sexual transmission of Hepatitis C is possible although it’s rare. Hepatitis C can also be spread when getting tattoos and body piercings in unlicensed facilities, informal settings, or with non-sterile instruments. Approximately 6% of infants born to infected mothers will get Hepatitis C. It is important to note that Hepatitis C is not spread by casual contact, kissing, hugging, sneezing, coughing, breastfeeding or sharing food, eating utensils or glasses.

What Are Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

Many people with Hepatitis C do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected. If symptoms do occur, they can include fever, feeling tired, not wanting to eat, upset stomach, vomiting, dark urine, grey-colored stool, joint pain, and yellow skin and eyes.

When Do Symptoms Occur?

If symptoms occur with acute infection, they can appear anytime from two weeks to six months after infection. If symptoms occur with chronic Hepatitis C, they take decades to develop and are often a sign of advanced liver disease.

Testing is the only way to determine if you are infected with Hepatitis C. It is performed through a blood test. More about testing and prevention will be discussed tomorrow in the next series of articles, Hepatitis C: Testing & Prevention.

For more information or to get screened for Hepatitis C, talk to your primary physician or visit www.cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis. Source: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

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