What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C in Women?
Infection Statistics: Men vs. Women
Needles are the number one form of transmission for the hepatitis C virus. A study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases showed that women are more likely to share needles or start using intravenous drugs with a sexual partner than men are. As a result, among drug users, women are more likely than men to be infected with the hepatitis C virus.
Women can also transmit the hepatitis C virus to the fetus if they are pregnant. This means women have more opportunities to spread the infection than men do.
Acute vs. Chronic Hepatitis C in Women
Between 60 and 80 percent of people who contract the hepatitis C virus (HCV) develop chronic hepatitis C, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). The other 20 to 40 percent of people can fight the virus and clear it from their bodies, the AHRQ says.
According to a study published in Hepatology, women are more likely than men to have “spontaneous clearance.” This means their bodies get rid of the virus on their own, without medication. In fact, women are about two times more likely than men to get rid of the virus on their own.
Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) occurs in up to 20 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C, according to a study published by the University of Washington. However, many studies show that men are more likely than women to develop cirrhosis and liver damage.
In a German study published in Hepatology, only four women out of over 1,000 developed cirrhosis after 20 years of living with chronic hepatitis C. Numbers are much higher in men.
One of the reasons for this might be the female hormone estrogen. Estrogen appears to protect the liver, helping women fight the virus more easily.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Both men and women with chronic hepatitis C have the same symptoms. Common symptoms include:
- joint or muscular pain
- loss of appetite
- yellowing of the skin
Less common symptoms include:
- dark-yellow urine
- stomach pain
- itchy skin
Symptoms of Cirrhosis
By the time cirrhosis develops, other symptoms appear, such as:
- swelling of the stomach
- memory loss
- shrinking of the muscles
Many of these symptoms are irreversible.
Intensity of Symptoms
While men and women may have the same symptoms of chronic hepatitis C, the intensity may vary.
Women often have milder symptoms or symptoms that appear later.
And 25 percent of people clear the virus off their bodies without treatment. That means many may never know that they were even sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Without early treatment, the virus can escalate and cause serious problems. You should get tested if there’s a possibility that you may have been infected with HCV.
Your doctor will run a series of tests before treatment for hepatitis C can begin. They’ll check for liver enzyme levels, viral load, and the health of your liver.
The doctor might decide to postpone treatment if your liver is in good condition and the level of the virus is low. This is important because manyhepatitis C drugs can have side effects on the body.
In women, side effects may include serious depression, immune system problems, and circulation issues.
Response to Treatment
Interferon is a drug used to treat hepatitis C. In most cases, interferon and ribavirin are combined, which is known as dual therapy.
According to Archives of Internal Medicine, women respond better to treatment with interferon than men do. This is especially true for women 39 years and younger. Researchers believe this is due to women’s higher levels of estrogen, which can help fight the infection. More studies are needed to see what happens after menopause, when the levels of estrogen in women decrease.
Chronic Hepatitis and Risks
Drugs used to treat hepatitis C have many side effects. Interferon often worsens the symptoms of autoimmune conditions. According to The American Journal of Pathology, this is a serious problem because 78 percent of people with immune diseases are women.
Alcohol increases the chances of developing cirrhosis in people with hepatitis C. The effects of alcohol are more serious in women than in men. According to a study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, men who drink 30 grams of alcohol every day have double the risk of developing cirrhosis. Women have the same risk drinking just 20 grams per day.
(A standard drink, such as a 12-ounce beer or a glass of wine contains about 15 grams of alcohol.)
Hepatitis C affects over 3.2 million people in the United States, according to the CDC. Of the people who become infected with the virus, up to 85 percent will develop chronic hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C can have serious health consequences. It’s important that you get tested regularly if you fall into a risk group. Testing is especially important if you have a suppressed immune system or you’re battling other health issues.
There’s currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, so prevention and early treatment are the best ways to deal with the disease.
- Hézode C et al. (2003, April). Impact of moderate alcohol consumption on histological activity and fibrosis in patients with chronic hepatitis C, and specific influence of steatosis: a prospective study. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 17(8):1031-7. Retrieved November 14, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12694085
- Grebely J. et al. (2013, August).The effects of female sex,
viral genotype, and IL28B genotype on spontaneous clearance of acute hepatitis
C Virus infection.Hepatology, 10.1002/hep.26639. Retrieved November 14,
2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23908124
- Beth P. Bell et al. (2004, November). Prevention of Hepatitis in Women.
Emerging Infectious Diseases, 10(11): 2035–2036. Retrieved November 14, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3329031/
- Women and HCV(2003). Hepatitis C Support Project.
Retrieved November 14, 2013, from http://www.hcvadvocate.org/hepatitis/hepc/wmnlong.html
- Hepatitis Web Study: Discussion (2013).University of Washington. Retrieved November 14, 2013, from http://depts.washington.edu/hepstudy/healthed/counselingHepC/discussion.html
- Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public (2012) CDC. Retrieved November 14, 2013 from http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/c/cfaq.htm
- Wiese M. et al. (2000, July). Low frequency of cirrhosis in a hepatitis C (genotype 1b) single-source outbreak in germany: a 20-year multicenter study. Hepatology, 32(1):91-6. Retrieved November 14, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10869294
- Treating Chronic Hepatitis C: A Review of the Research for Adults (2012). Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Retrieved November 14, 2013, from http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/index.cfm/search-for-guides-reviews-and-reports/?pageaction=displayproduct&productid=1288
- Hayashi J. et al. (1998, January). Age-related response to interferon alfa treatment in women vs men with chronic hepatitis C virus infection: women 39 years or less of age respond better to HCV treatment than men and women older than 40 years. Archives of Internal Medicine, 158(2):177-81. Retrieved November 14, 2013, fromhttp://www.natap.org/2001/jan/age-related012401.htm