Hepatitis C is a type of liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Your liver produces bile to help you digest food, and it also removes toxins from your body. Hepatitis C, sometimes abbreviated as “hep C,” causes inflammation and scarring in the liver, making it hard for the organ to do its job.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 2.7 million people in the United States have hepatitis C. Many people don’t know they have the disease because hepatitis C can be asymptomatic. This means you may not have any symptoms.
According to the CDC, men who have sex with other men have a higher risk of contracting hepatitis C. However, practicing safe sex and taking other health precautions can reduce this risk.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease. This means that you can only catch it through blood-to-blood contact with someone who’s infected with HCV. Blood-to-blood contact can occur in a number of different ways, including sex.
Those who engage in anal sex have an increased risk of contracting the hepatitis C virus because the fragile tissues of the anus are more likely to tear and bleed. There doesn’t have to be a lot of blood to pass on the HCV virus. Even microscopic tears in the skin that don’t appear to bleed can be enough for transmission.
You may also have a higher risk of getting hepatitis C if you:
- share needles for injecting recreational drugs
- get a tattoo or body piercing performed with dirty needles
- need kidney dialysis treatment for a long time
- had an organ transplant or blood transfusion before 1992
- have HIV or AIDS
- were born between 1945 and 1964
Even if you don’t engage in high-risk behavior, you could potentially contract hepatitis C simply from using the toothbrush or razor of an infected person.
Hepatitis C that runs its course and responds to treatment in a relatively short period is called “acute” hepatitis. Men and women with acute hepatitis C usually fight off HCV within six months.
Chronic hepatitis C is a longer-lasting form of liver disease. Your immune system may not be successful in fighting the virus, and it stays in your body for lengthy periods. Untreated chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver damage or liver cancer.
One of the reasons that hepatitis C can be so damaging is that it’s possible to have it for years without knowing. Some patients may not show any signs of the initial viral infection until the disease has advanced significantly. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), liver damage and the symptoms of hepatitis C may not develop for up to 10 or more years after infection with the virus.
Although hepatitis C is asymptomatic in some people, other people may have symptoms of the illness within a few months of being exposed to the virus, such as:
- yellowing of the whites of the eyes, or jaundice
- stomach pain
- muscle soreness
- upset stomach
- loss of appetite
- dark-colored urine
- clay-colored stools
If you’re concerned, you might have been exposed to HCV, talk to your doctor. They’ll run blood tests to determine if you have hepatitis C. You don’t necessarily need to wait for symptoms to have a hepatitis C test. Contact your doctor if you think you’re at a high risk for hepatitis C.
Your doctor may also perform a biopsy of your liver. This means they’ll use a needle to remove a small piece of your liver for testing in a lab. A biopsy can help your doctor see the condition of the liver.
If you have acute hepatitis C, there’s a chance that you may not need any medical treatment. Your doctor is likely to monitor your condition frequently by asking you to report new symptoms and measuring your liver function with blood tests. A normal immune system is often capable of fighting off the virus within a few months.
Chronic hepatitis C needs to be treated to minimize or prevent liver damage. Antiviral medications help your body fight off HCV. Treatment for chronic hepatitis may last from six to nine months. During this time, you’ll have regular blood draws to monitor your condition.
In some cases, hepatitis C damages the liver to the extent that it no longer works. A liver transplant may be needed. However, this is relatively rare.
Men are less able to fight off the hepatitis C virus once they’ve been infected than women are. According to studies, men have consistently lower clearance rates than women. Clearance rate is the body’s ability to get rid of the virus so that it’s no longer detectable. Fewer men are able to clear the virus than women are. The reason for this difference, however, is unclear to scientists. Possible factors include:
- the age at which a man is infected with hepatitis C
- whether he has other infections, such as HIV
- the route of infection, such as a blood transfusion, sexual contact, or drug use
Men can take steps to avoid exposure to HCV and keep themselves and others healthy. Using a condom during all forms of sex is one of the most important methods of protection. Another good preventive measure is wearing rubber gloves when coming in contact with another person’s blood or open wounds. Avoid sharing personal items such as shaving equipment, toothbrushes, and drug paraphernalia.