“Hepatitis” refers to inflammation of the liver. There are many different potential causes of hepatitis. In most cases, hepatitis refers to a viral infection of the liver that causes long-term damage. The three most common types of hepatitis are A, B, and C.
Hepatitis A, B, and C are actually three different viruses. Hepatitis A only presents in an acute form, or a short-term infection. Hepatitis B and C begin as acute, but the virus can stay in the body and become chronic. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for preventing hepatitis C virus (HCV) as there is for hepatitis A and B.
Hepatitis C is contracted from the blood of a person infected with the hepatitis C virus. The most common causes of infection include sharing needles used for injected drugs or accidental needle sticks in a healthcare setting.
At highest risk for HCV infection are people who:
- use injected drugs
- are on long-term dialysis treatment
- receive tattoos or acupuncture from unlicensed providers
- come into contact with blood on a regular basis
- receive a blood transfusion or organ transplant from an infected donor (since 1992, all donors are screened for HCV)
- are born to a mother with hepatitis C
Many people with hepatitis C, especially those who recently contracted the virus, show no symptoms. Even those with chronic HCV infection may not know they’re infected until they develop cirrhosis. The combination of several of the following symptoms could be telltale signs of an HCV infection with advanced liver disease:
- yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
- nausea and vomiting
- light colored stool
- dark, tea-colored urine
- swelling of the abdomen
- loss of appetite
If you have one or more risk factors for hepatitis C infection, you may want to talk to your doctor about a screening. Screening is vital even if you don’t display any symptoms. This is because HCV can be clinically silent for 20 to 30 years before eventually leading to cirrhosis, cancer, or even death.
Hepatitis C is a virus that can be cured. If caught early, much of the liver damage can be prevented. Because symptoms are often not present, you can’t depend on feeling sick to know for sure.
Generally, there are two blood tests used to diagnose hepatitis C. One looks for an antibody that the immune system produces in response to the virus. The other specifically tests for levels of the virus itself.
Like many blood-borne pathogens identified over the past several decades, the hepatitis C virus was often transmitted through medical procedures before it was known to cause disease. Therefore, “baby boomers” (people born between 1945 and 1965) are encouraged to request a screening.
If you receive a hepatitis C diagnosis, it’s important to determine the extent to which your liver is damaged. There are a number of tests to check the health of the liver. Successful hepatitis C treatments can reduce or get rid of the virus and the accompanying inflammation. This often allows the liver to repair itself.
There are six genotypes of the hepatitis C virus. The only way to know which type you have is through viral genetic testing. Some types are easier to treat than others, and treatment is often based on the specific genotype. You should discuss genetic testing and the results with your doctor before selecting treatment options.
Treatment for hepatitis C usually involves a combination of two or more antiviral medications. These medications are taken for at least a few months.
Different drugs (and different drug combinations) have different side effects and success rates. The FDA’s approval of simeprevir (Olysio) in late 2013 was a major breakthrough for hepatitis C treatment. It can provide a cure for certain genotypes in a matter of weeks as part of a combination antiviral treatment program.
In 2014, more options became available when the FDA approved ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni). Your doctor can go over the details, advantages, and disadvantages of the various treatment options available to you.