The Progression of Hepatitis C: What Are the Stages?
What Is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is an infection that leads to liver inflammation. Symptoms can be quite mild for many years, even while liver damage is taking place. The majority of people who are infected end up with chronic infection that can last a lifetime. The consequences of long-term infection include liver damage, liver cancer, and possibly even death.
Read on to learn how the infection is spread and how it progresses.
How Hepatitis C Begins
You can become infected with hepatitis C through contact with the blood of an infected person. You are at increased risk of contracting the virus if you share infected needles, come into regular contact with blood (for instance, if you are a healthcare worker), have had long-term kidney dialysis, or engage in unprotected sex with an infected person. Infected mothers can pass the virus on to their children during childbirth.
Early Warning Signs
In most cases, there are no early warning signs. Most people are symptom-free and remain unaware of the infection for a long time. Others experience mild symptoms, such as fatigue and loss of appetite, which clear up on their own. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 15 to 20 percent of people infected with hepatitis C fight it off without treatment and suffer no long-term damage to their health.
The first six months following infection is the acute phase of the disease. Early symptoms may include fatigue, loss of appetite, or mild jaundice. In most cases, symptoms clear up within a few weeks. If your immune system doesn’t resolve the problem on its own, it enters the chronic phase. Because of the lack of symptoms, chronic hepatitis C can go unnoticed for years, or is discovered during a blood test that’s being done for other reasons.
Most people who’ve been infected will progress to the chronic phase. However, even in the chronic phase, it may take years for symptoms to show. Progression begins with inflammation of the liver, followed by the death of liver cells. This causes scarring and hardening (cirrhosis) of liver tissue. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that about 20 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C will experience gradual damage to the liver over a period of years, and go on to develop cirrhosis of the liver in 15 to 20 years. It may even take longer than that.
Cirrhosis of the Liver
When permanent scar tissue replaces healthy liver cells, it is called cirrhosis. The liver becomes so scarred that it can no longer heal itself. This can cause a variety of health concerns, including a buildup of fluid in the abdomen and bleeding from veins in the esophagus. When the liver fails to filter toxins, they can build up in the bloodstream and damage brain function. Some people with cirrhosis of the liver will go on to develop liver cancer. This risk is greater in people who drink excessive amounts of alcohol.
Chronic hepatitis C can cause serious long-term health consequences, including liver failure, liver cancer, or death. End-stage hepatitis C is when the liver is severely damaged and is no longer able to function properly. Symptoms may include fatigue, yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), nausea, loss of appetite, abdominal swelling, and muddled thinking. People with cirrhosis may also experience bleeding in the esophagus, as well as brain and nervous system damage. A liver transplant is the only treatment for end-stage liver disease. Most transplant patients live at last five years, but unfortunately hepatitis C almost always returns in these patients.
Factors That Affect Progression
Because alcohol is processed in the liver, excessive alcohol consumption can hasten liver damage. Damage to the liver progresses faster in people who are also HIV-positive. In people who also have hepatitis B, the risk of developing liver cancer is increased. When it comes to cirrhosis, men tend to progress faster than women. Additionally, people over 40 with cirrhosis progress at a faster rate than younger people.
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- 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
- Hepatitis C: Frequently Asked Questions. (2013, July 9). U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.hepatitis.va.gov/patient/faqs/how-does-hepatitisC-progress.asp
- Hepatitis C: Information for the Public. (2013, May 6). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/c
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- Hepatitis C: What happens in end-stage liver disease? (2012, May 10). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved November 11, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hepatitis-c/AN00758