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Hepatitis C

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Hepatitis C

What is hepatitis C?
How does someone get hepatitis C?
What are the risk factors for hepatitis C?
How can you protect yourself from getting hepatitis C?
What are some symptoms of hepatitis C?
Can infection with hepatitis C virus lead to other health problems?
What is the impact of hepatitis C on pregnancy?
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
Is there a treatment or cure for hepatitis C?

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a serious liver disease that is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). HCV is primarily transmitted through contact with infected blood. HCV directly attacks the liver and can lead to liver damage and in some cases death. Hepatitis C was formerly known as non-A non-B hepatitis.

How does someone get hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is spread primarily through contact with blood of infected individuals. It can be transmitted through:
  • Sharing needles, IV drugs, and drug paraphernalia
  • Use of contaminated razors, tattooing needles, or piercing instruments
  • Blood transfusion, blood products, or hemodialysis
  • Occupational exposure to blood of an infected person
  • Sexual contact (vaginal, anal, or oral) with an infected person
  • Pregnancy and/or birth (from mother to baby)
The risk of infection through sex or perinatal transmission is considered to be much lower for HCV than HBV. There is no evidence that HCV is transmitted in breast milk. Unlike HBV, there is no evidence at this time to indicate that household transmission (transmission without recognized blood, sexual, or perinatal exposure) of HCV occurs. All persons with HCV are potentially infectious, whether or not they have symptoms.

What are the risk factors for hepatitis C?

The primary risk factors for hepatitis C infection include:
  • Sharing needles, IV drugs, and drug paraphernalia
  • Having received a blood transfusion or treatment with infected blood products (Note: Since the early 1990s, blood and blood products in the United States have been tested for HCV.)
  • Hemodialysis
  • Having a job (such as in health care) that exposes one to blood or other body fluids

How can you protect yourself from getting hepatitis C?

Unlike hepatitis B, there is no vaccine protective against hepatitis C (the HBV vaccine provides no protection against HCV), and prior infection with HCV does not protect against future infections as is the case with HBV.

To reduce your risk of becoming infected with hepatitis C:

  • Avoid sharing needles, IV drugs, and drug paraphernalia
  • Avoid skin piercing or tattoos
  • Practice standard precautions if you are a health care worker
  • Use care when handling any items that may have HCV-infected blood on them (such as razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, sanitary napkins, and tampons)
  • Although the risk of transmission of HCV during sex is low, use latex or polyurethane condoms with all casual sex partners. Recommendations for condom use with a long-term partner who is a carrier of HCV should be made on an individual basis.

What are some symptoms of hepatitis C?

Most people infected with HCV have no or only mild symptoms. Generally, the symptoms of hepatitis C are not as severe as the symptoms of hepatitis B. Hepatitis C can cause:
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever and chills
  • Dark urine
  • Light stools
  • Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
  • Pain in the right side, which may radiate to the back

Can infection with hepatitis C virus lead to other health problems?

Between 50-80% of infected people are unable to clear the infection and become chronic carriers. Of these carriers, 50-70% will slowly progress over a period of 10-40 years to develop chronic hepatitis and are at increased risk for cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.

What is the impact of hepatitis C on pregnancy?

There is no hard evidence that women with hepatitis C infection are at significantly increased risk of having complications during pregnancy. Women with hepatitis C infection usually have healthy babies. Transmission of hepatitis C from mother to baby can happen, but appears to be relatively rare.

Women with advanced liver disease are at increased risk of suffering complications during pregnancy.

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

Hepatitis C can be diagnosed by several blood tests. These tests determine the presence of antibody to the hepatitis C virus, as well as measure the virus itself. Tests to eliminate the possibility of other infections, like hepatitis B, are also usually done.

Is there a treatment or cure for hepatitis C?

Currently, three types of therapy are available to treat HCV infection:
  • Interferon therapy - effective in about 20% of individuals with HCV
  • Combination therapy with interferon and ribavirin - effective in about 50% of individuals with HCV
  • Bioengineered interferon - effective in 60-70% of individuals with HCV
All of these treatments, which are given by injection, may cause side effects, such as fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. In addition, treatment may affect the body's normal production of blood cells.

Symptoms of hepatitis can be treated. For example, restricting fat and drinking clear liquids can help relieve symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In addition, it is recommended that individuals with hepatitis C:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Eat a well-balanced diet
  • Avoid alcohol
Keep in mind that HCV can be transmitted to others via items that are contaminated with blood (such as razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, sanitary napkins, and tampons). Also remember to use latex or polyurethane condoms with all casual sex partners.

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