Hepatitis C: Transmission, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
- Publish Date: 2009/05/07 - (Rev. 2015/03/23)
- Author: Disabled World
Outline: Currently there are no medications available for use in treating acute hepatitis C infection.
There are an estimated 3.2 million persons with chronic hepatitis C infections in America. The majority of these people are not aware that they are infected because they do not exhibit any symptoms. The number of reported cases of hepatitis C is considerably lower. About seventy-five to eighty percent of people who become infected with the HCV virus develop chronic hepatitis C.
Defining Hepatitis C
The term, 'Hepatitis,' means, 'inflammation of the liver.' Exposure to toxins, specific medications, viral or bacterial infections, and alcohol use can cause hepatitis. The term hepatitis also refers to a family of viral infections which affect a person's liver. Hepatitis types A, B, and C are the most common ones in America. Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease resulting from an infection with the hepatitis C (HCV) virus.
The illness that results from an infection with the HCV virus may be mild, lasting only a few weeks, or range all the way through illness that is severe, serious, and life-long. The HCV virus is commonly spread through blood from a person who has been infected through use of shared needles or equipment used to inject drugs. There are two phases associated with hepatitis C; the acute phase and the chronic phase.
Acute hepatitis C infection involves short-term illness that happens within the first six months after a person has been exposed to the HCV virus. There is the potential for many people who experience acute hepatitis C infections to go on to experience chronic hepatitis.
Chronic hepatitis C infection involves illness that is long-term and happens when the HCV virus stays in a person's body. The infection may last for the duration of the person's lifetime, leading to serious complications with their liver, to include cirrhosis of the liver, or liver cancer. Chronic hepatitis C may even result in death.
Approximately forty-percent of those infected with the HCV virus fully recover. Of the remaining population that has been infected, some become chronic carriers; whether they experience any symptoms or not. Out of the sixty-percent who do not fully recover, twenty-percent develop cirrhosis of the liver, and twenty-percent of those who develop cirrhosis develop liver cancer.
Transmission of Hepatitis C
The HCV virus is spread through the blood of a person who has been infected with the virus. The majority of persons who become infected with the virus have shared needles used by someone who is infected, or have been exposed to equipment used to inject drugs that have been infected. Prior to 1992 screening of blood supplies was not prominent in America and hepatitis C was sometimes spread through either organ transplants or blood transfusions. Medical personnel were unable to check blood for hepatitis C before 1992. People who have received an organ transplant or a blood transfusion before 1992 should be tested for hepatitis C. Ways of contracting the HCV virus include:
- Sharing drug needles
- Sexual contact with an infected person
- Being born to a mother who is infected
- Getting stuck with a needle that has infected blood on it
- Getting a tattoo or body piercing with unsterilized, dirty tools
- Sharing items have come in contact with another person's blood
People do not get hepatitis C through:
- Shaking hands
- Sneezing or coughing
- Water or food
- Sharing eating utensils
- Sitting next to a person who is infected
People at Risk of Hepatitis C
There are an estimated 3.2 million persons with chronic hepatitis C infections in America. The majority of these people are not aware that they are infected because they do not exhibit any symptoms. The number of reported cases of hepatitis C is considerably lower. About seventy-five to eighty percent of people who become infected with the HCV virus develop chronic hepatitis C. People at risk of hepatitis C include:
- People who use injection drugs
- People infected with the HIV virus
- People who have been exposed to the HCV virus
- People who have used injection drugs in the past
- Children born to mothers infected with the HCV virus
- Health care workers that have been injured by needle sticks
- People who have received donated blood, blood products, and organs
- People who have come in contact with the blood of an infected person
- People who received a blood product for clotting problems made before 1987
- People who have received body piercing or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments
- People who have had sexual contact with a person who is infected with the HCV virus
- Hemodialysis patients or persons who spent a number of years on dialysis for kidney failure
- People who have received blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the HCV virus
The chance of a mother who is infected with the HCV virus passing the infection to her baby is small; approximately four out of every one-hundred babies born to a mother who is HCV-positive become infected with the virus themselves. The risk of infection is greater if the mother also has the HIV virus. Testing of blood products has become universal over the last twenty-five years, although forty-eight percent of nations report that they are not testing all of the blood donations they are receiving. Around ten to forty-percent of cases of HCV infection that are reported do not have an identifiable risk factor.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Some persons with hepatitis C report symptoms similar to the flu. About seventy to eighty-percent of people who have an acute HCV infection do not report experiencing any symptoms at all. People infected with the HCV virus can experience symptoms ranging from mild to severe shortly after becoming infected that may include:
- Joint pain
- Dark urine
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Clay-colored bowel movements
These symptoms, if they occur, can appear approximately six to seven weeks after a person has been exposed to the HCV virus, although it can take anywhere from two weeks to six months. Even if someone who is infected does not exhibit any symptoms, they can still spread the HCV virus to other people. A number of people who carry the HCV virus are unaware they are infected because they do not have any symptoms.
Diagnosing Hepatitis C
There are several different blood tests available to medical personnel in order to test for hepatitis C. A doctor can order one or several of these tests to help them make a diagnosis. The first test that is done is usually a screening test to find out if the person has developed antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. A positive antibody test means the person was exposed to the HCV virus at some point. If the person has a positive antibody test, their doctor will probably order another test in order to confirm the current presence of the HCV virus in their system.
Another form of test a doctor may order is a liver biopsy. A liver biopsy involves removal of a tiny piece of the person's liver through a needle. Their doctor examines the piece of liver for signs of damage and hepatitis C. People who are HCV-positive commonly have liver enzyme levels that go up and down; periodically returning to an average range. Some persons who are infected have enzyme levels in an average range for more than a year, even though they have chronic liver disease.
Treating Hepatitis C
Currently, there are no medications available for use in treating acute hepatitis C infection. There is no vaccine at this time for hepatitis C. Prevention involves avoiding behaviors that may spread the HCV virus. About fifteen to twenty-five percent of people with acute hepatitis C clear the virus without treatment and do not develop chronic hepatitis C; doctors do not understand why. There are currently no licensed treatments or guidelines for treating either infants or children who have been infected with the HCV virus.
People with chronic hepatitis C are often treated by hepatologists, internists, family practitioners, and infectious disease doctors. They should be monitored for signs of liver disease. There are two medications that are used in combination to treat chronic hepatitis C; Ribavirin and Interferon. Not all persons with chronic hepatitis C will either need or benefit from use of these medications; these medications may also cause serious side-effects in some people.
People with chronic hepatitis C should be monitored by their doctor regularly. They also should avoid alcohol consumption, and check with their doctor before taking any supplements, prescription drugs, or over-the-counter medications because it may damage their liver. If a person with hepatitis C experiences liver damage they should check with their doctor about being vaccinated against both hepatitis A and B.
Monitoring by a doctor and persons with chronic hepatitis C needs to be done every six months. The monitoring of both liver enzymes and blood counts is important. For persons with chronic hepatitis C who have advanced liver disease, levels of Fetoprotein and ultrasonography should be included in the monitoring process. People with chronic hepatitis C who have had it for a number of years and experience liver failure will require a liver transplant.