This article was published on November 20th, 2019
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that, if left untreated, can result in liver damage and inflammation. Inflammation occurs when the tissues become infected or injured, leading to damaged organs. The organ that suffers the most from hepatitis C infection is the liver, which swells from the infection. Early detection is key, because left undiagnosed and treated, up to 85% of those infected will have chronic hepatitis C which leads to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver.
What is Hepatitis C?
As a blood-borne virus, hepatitis C is typically contracted through exposure to minute quantities of blood. Intravenous drug users, unsterile injection practices, transfusions of unscreened blood and blood products, and unsafe sexual practices are the most common ways that hepatitis C is contracted. How hepatitis C is not contracted is through breast milk, food, water, or through physical contact like kissing, hugging, or sharing foods with infected persons.
Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates about 71 million people suffer from chronic hepatitis C virus (HVC) infection. Of those millions, a substantial number of them will develop liver cancer. WHO estimates that as many as 1.75 million new infections occur around the world, with approximately 400,000 people dying from hepatitis C annually – primarily because of hepatocellular carcinoma and cirrhosis.
The Symptoms of Hepatitis C
With an incubation period in the range of anywhere from 2 weeks to 5 months, about 80% of people that contract hepatitis C initially so not display any symptoms. Those that do may show signs of fever, chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, grey-colored feces, dark urine, jaundice, and joint pain. Hepatitis C can cause acute and chronic infection, although some that have acute hepatitis don’t suffer any life-threatening issues. About 30% of those infected may spontaneously clear the virus without any treatment whatsoever within 6 months. The remaining 70% of those infected will experience chronic HCV symptoms, with between 15% and 30% of those at risk for cirrhosis within 20 years.
Diagnosis and Testing
Since most people that suffer form HCV infections are typically asymptomatic, most are not diagnosed in the beginning, and for those that develop chronic HCV infection, the infection often goes undiagnosed as it can remain asymptomatic for decades. Then, the infection develops to serious liver damage. Getting diagnosed as early as possible can prevent or reduce health problems that can results from infection, as well as prevent virus transmission. The World Health Organization recommends testing those that are increased risk of infection. Those that may be at increased risk include:
- had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992
- have injected drugs
- have hemophilia and received clotting factor before 1987
- have been on kidney dialysis
- have been in contact with blood or infected needles at work
- have had tattoos or body piercings
- have worked or lived in a prison
- were born to a mother with hepatitis C
- are infected with HIV
- have had more than one sex partner in the last 6 months or have a history of sexually transmitted disease
- are men who have or had sex with men
Not all new infections require treatment, as some people have an immune response that will clear the infection. If it HCV infection becomes chronic, however, a course of treatment therapy is necessary. The current recommend therapy is through the use of pan-genotypic direct-acting antivirals (DAAs), which can cure most people with hepatitis C infection. Treatment lasts between 12 to 24 weeks depending on the presence or absence of cirrhosis, with antiviral medicines curing over 95% of those infected with hepatitis C. There is no current effective vaccine to prevent contracting hepatitis C; research is still ongoing.
If you have questions or would like more information, please consult your physician.