What Does Hepatitis C Look Like? Pictures and Information on Diagnosis
What Is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease that causes inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Chronic hepatitis C can lead to irreversible scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver damage, and liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is transmitted through direct contact with infected blood. This can happen through the sharing of infected drug needles or accidental needle sticking in a healthcare setting. It can also be transmitted by an infected mother to her newborn.
Hepatitis C can also be transmitted through a blood transfusion or unprotected sexual contact with an infected person. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risks of getting it from these sources are relatively low.
What Are the Signs?
According to the American Liver Foundation, nearly 4 million people in the United States have hepatitis C. Many people, however, aren’t aware they have the disease, since there are little to no symptoms in the early stages of hepatitis C. As the disease progresses and significant damage is done to the liver, symptoms begin to appear.
In addition to feeling tired, weak, and generally unwell, some people develop visible signs of advanced liver disease.
Jaundice is a condition that causes the skin and the whites of the eyes (sclera) to take on a yellow hue. The cause of jaundice is too much bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow-orange substance produced during the breakdown of red blood cells. Old red blood cells are constantly breaking down as new red blood cells are replenished in the body.
Normally bilirubin gets broken down in the liver and is released from the body in the stool. When the liver is damaged, it can’t properly process the bilirubin, causing it to build up in the bloodstream. This results in the yellowish pigment of the skin and eyes.
Spider angiomas are clusters of prominent, thin blood vessels underneath the skin’s surface. As the liver becomes damaged, rising estrogen levels in the blood are thought to cause angiomas.
Spider angiomas characteristically have a red dot in the center with thin blood vessels extending outwards. The reddish, circular patches usually appear on the upper body, face, and arms. The blood vessels resemble spider’s legs, giving this condition its name.
Ascites is the excess buildup of fluid in the abdomen, causing the abdominal cavity to take on a swollen, balloon-like appearance. This excess fluid is a complication of advanced cirrhosis. Normally, the liver receives its blood supply through the portal vein.
When the liver becomes scarred, the natural blood flow from the portal vein to the liver is disrupted. As the blood struggles to flow properly, excess pressure builds up in the vein. This excess pressure is called portal hypertension, and it causes fluid to pool into the abdominal caviity.
Similar to ascites, edema is the accumulation of fluid in the body’s tissues. In people suffering from chronic hepatitis C, edema usually affects the legs, ankles, and feet. Edema occurs when the capillaries in your body leak fluid, which builds up in the surrounding tissue.
Edema gives the affected areas a puffy or swollen appearance. Other symptoms include the skin having a shiny appearance and dimpling of the skin. Dimpling of the skin, or pitting, is when a dent remains in the skin after pressing the swollen area with a finger for several seconds.
Bruising and Bleeding
In its advanced stages, hepatitis C can lead to frequent bruising that occurs for no apparent reason. Abnormal bruising is believed to be the result of the liver slowing the production of proteins needed to clot blood. Excessive bleeding occurs as a result of portal hypertension.
To relieve the pressure of portal hypertension, blood gets redirected to smaller veins. These smaller veins become strained and can burst, causing serious bleeding. Life-threatening bleeding in the esophagus or the stomach can also occur.
After years of chronic inflammation and scarring, the liver undergoes dramatic physical changes. Compared to a healthy liver, there are noticeable differences. A healthy liver has soft tissue and is smooth and uniform in appearance, while a cirrhotic liver is stiffer than a healthy liver and has visible scar tissue.
Caput medusae, which is Latin for head of Medusa, refers to the bluish, engorged blood vessels that appear on the abdomen of patients with advanced hepatitis C. The distended veins extend from the belly button and across the abdomen in a snake-like pattern. This is a result of portal hypertension and abnormal blood flow in the liver.
The condition known as Terry’s nails is when the normal pinkish color of the nail plates turn to a mostly opaque white. The white starts at the cuticle and extends almost to the distal edge of the nail plate. American Family Physician reported in 2004 that 80 percent of patients with cirrhosis suffer from this condition.
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- Cirrhosis: Entire Lesson. (2013, January 3). United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.hepatitis.va.gov/patient/complications/cirrhosis-single-page.asp
- Fawcett, R.S. et al. (2004, March 15). Nail Abnormalities: Clues to Systemic Disease. American Family Physician, 69(6), 1417-1424. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0315/p1417.html
- Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public. (2012, October 22). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/c/cfaq.htm
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- Spider angioma. (2012, November 20). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001095.htm
- St. John, T.M. (2008). Signs and Symptoms That May Be Associated With Hepatitis C. Caring Ambassadors Hepatitis C Choices, 4th Edition. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://hepcchallenge.org/choices/pdf/Chapter_05_OL.pdf
- What is Hepatitis C? (2013). American Liver Foundation. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://hepc.liverfoundation.org/what-is-hepatitis-c/