Hepatitis C is an infection that causes inflammation of the liver. The illness can be quite mild and short lived, or it can become chronic. The main method of transmission is contact with the blood of an infected person. Diagnosis is made through blood testing.
Hepatitis C can be successfully treated with antiviral medications, but chronic hepatitis C can severely damage the liver over time. Currently, there is no vaccination for this condition.
Types of Hepatitis
There are five main types of hepatitis virus: A, B, C, D, and E. They all attack the liver, but there are distinct differences.
Hepatitis C (HCV)
HCV, one of the more serious types of hepatitis, spreads through exposure to infected blood. Sharing needles can spread HCV.
You can also get it from contaminated medical products during transfusions or other medical procedures. However, it’s rarely transmitted this way in the United States these days.
Rarely, it can be sexually transmitted. HCV can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). There is currently no vaccine to prevent HCV.
Hepatitis A (HAV)
HAV can be found in the feces of those who are infected. It usually spreads in contaminated food or water. It may also be transmitted through sexual contact. It’s fairly common in areas of the world that have poor sanitation.
Most of the time, illness caused by HAV is mild, but it can become life threatening. It’s an acute infection that doesn’t become chronic.
There are often no symptoms of HAV, so the number of cases may be underreported. In the United States, there were about 25,000 new cases in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccination can prevent HAV.
Hepatitis B (HBV)
HBV is spread through infected body fluids, including blood and semen. It can be passed from mother to baby during birth. Shared needles and contaminated medical supplies can also transmit HBV.
The CDC estimates that 800,000 to 1.4 million people in the United States have chronic HBV. There is a vaccine to prevent it.
Hepatitis D (HDV)
You can only get HDV if you’re already infected with HBV. The HBV vaccine protects you from HDV infection.
Hepatitis E (HEV)
HEV is transmitted via contaminated food or water. It’s quite common in the developing world where sanitization is a problem. There is a vaccine to prevent HEV, but according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s not yet widely available.
According to the CDC, in 2009, there were about 16,000 reported cases of acute HCV. Approximately 3.2 million people in the United States are living with chronic HCV.
HCV can be found throughout the world. Regions with the highest rates of HCV include Central and East Asia and Northern Africa. According to WHO, types C and B cause chronic illness for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
According to WHO:
- 15–45 percent of people infected with HCV get better within six months without ever receiving treatment.
- Many people are unaware they’re infected.
- 55–85 percent will develop chronic HCV infection.
- For people with chronic HCV infection, the chance of developing cirrhosis of the liver is 15–30 percent within 20 years.
- 130–150 million people around the world are living with chronic HCV.
- Treatment with antiviral medications can cure HCV in many cases, but in some parts of the world, access to the necessary medical care is lacking.
- Antiviral treatment can reduce risk of cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
- Antiviral treatment works for 50–90 percent of people treated.
- 350,000–500,000 people die from HCV-related complications each year.
Some groups of people have an increased risk of developing HCV. And certain behaviors can also increase your risk of developing HCV. Groups and behaviors with increased risks include:
- intravenous drug users who share contaminated needles
- people who have received contaminated blood products. (Since new screening procedures were implemented in 1992, this is a rare occurrence in the United States.)
- people who get body piercings or tattoos with instruments that have not been properly sterilized
- health care workers who are accidentally stuck with infected needles
- people living with HIV
- newborns whose mothers are HCV positive
It happens infrequently, but it’s also possible to transmit HCV through sexual contact or sharing personal items like razors or toothbrushes if they touch blood.
It’s possible to have HCV and not know it. According to the CDC, 70 to 80 percent of people with acute HCV don’t show symptoms. You can be infected for years before the first symptoms appear, or you can begin to show symptoms between one and three months after infection.
Symptoms can include:
- yellowing skin and eyes (jaundice)
- dark urine
- light-colored stools
- nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and discomfort
- loss of appetite
- extreme fatigue
Among those infected with HCV, 75 to 85 percent will go on to develop chronic illness. According to CDC figures, of those:
- 60–70 percent will develop chronic liver disease
- 5–20 percent will develop cirrhosis of the liver in 20–30 years
- 1–5 percent will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer
In about 15-25 percent of cases, acute HCV infection clears up without treatment, according to the CDC. It’s unclear why this happens.
Early treatment can lower your risk of developing chronic HCV. Antiviral medications work to eradicate the virus. You may need to take them for several months.
If you have HCV, you should see your doctor regularly so your condition can be monitored. You can help keep your liver healthy by avoiding alcohol. Some medications — even those sold over the counter — can damage your liver. You should check with your doctor before taking medicines or dietary supplements. Ask your doctor if you should be vaccinated for hepatitis A and B. Blood tests will help your doctor assess the health of your liver over time.
You should also take care not to transmit the virus to others. Keep cuts and scrapes covered. Don’t share personal items like your toothbrush or nail clippers. Don’t donate blood or semen. Tell all your health care providers that you have the virus before they treat you.
If you’ve suffered severe liver damage, you may need a liver transplant. However, this is not a cure. The virus can attack your new liver. It’s likely you’ll still need antiviral medication.
Other Surprising Facts
HCV can be passed from mother to baby during birth, but it’s rare. It’s much more likely to be transmitted this way when the mother also has HIV. About four out of every 100 babies born to an HCV-positive mother will get the infection, according to the CDC.
Other surprising facts:
- Twenty-five percent of people with HIV also have HCV.
- Two to 10 percent of people with HCV also have HBV.
- HCV tends to progress faster in people with HIV.
- HCV is one of the top causes of liver disease, liver transplants, and the leading cause of death from liver disease.
- About 75 percent of adults with HCV are of the “baby boomer” generation.
- Chronic liver disease, which is often due to HCV, is a leading cause of death for African Americans.
- Rates of chronic HCV are higher for African Americans than for people of other ethnicities.
- HCV is not transmitted through coughing, sneezing, or being in close proximity to someone with HCV.
- HCV doesn’t pass through breast milk.