Hepatitis C is a type of liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Your liver produces bile to help you digest food. 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 2.4 million people in the United States had hepatitis C in 2016. Many people don’t know they have the disease because they may not have any symptoms.

According to the CDC, men who have sex with men have a higher risk of contracting hepatitis C. However, you can take preventive measures to reduce this risk.

Men are less able than women to fight off the hepatitis C virus once they’ve contracted it. According to studies, men have consistently lower clearance rates than women. The clearance rate is the body’s ability to get rid of the virus so it’s no longer detectable.

Fewer men are able to clear the virus than women. The reason for this difference, however, is unclear to scientists. Possible factors include:

  • the age at which a man contracts hepatitis C
  • whether he has other infections, such as HIV
  • the route of infection, such as a blood transfusion, sexual contact, or substance use

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne disease. This means you can only contract it through blood-to-blood contact with someone who has HCV. Blood-to-blood contact can occur in a number of ways, including sex.

People who have anal sex have an increased risk of contracting HCV 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 transmit an infection. Even microscopic tears in the skin that don’t appear to bleed can be enough to transmit and contract HCV.

You may also have a higher risk of contracting hepatitis C if you:

  • share needles for injecting drugs
  • get a tattoo or body piercing with unsterilized or used 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
  • work in healthcare and have had a needlestick injury
  • share personal items, such as toothbrushes or razors, with someone who has HCV

Hepatitis C that runs its course without treatment in a relatively short period is called “acute” hepatitis. People with acute hepatitis C usually clear their HCV infection within 6 months.

Chronic hepatitis C is a longer lasting form of liver disease. Your immune system may not be able to clear the virus, and it stays in your body for lengthy periods. Untreated chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver damage and liver cancer.

One of the reasons hepatitis C can be so damaging is that it’s possible to have it for years without knowing. Some people may not show any signs of the initial viral infection until the disease has advanced significantly.

Although hepatitis C is asymptomatic in some people, others may have symptoms of the illness within a few months of being exposed to the virus, such as:

  • fatigue
  • yellowing of the whites of the eyes, or jaundice
  • stomach pain
  • muscle soreness
  • diarrhea
  • upset stomach
  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • dark-colored urine
  • clay-colored stools

If you’re concerned you might have been exposed to HCV, talk with a doctor. They can run blood tests to determine whether you have hepatitis C.

You don’t necessarily need to wait for symptoms to have a hepatitis C test. Contact a doctor if you think you’re at a risk of hepatitis C.

A 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 doctors see the condition of the liver.

If you have acute hepatitis C, there’s a chance 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.

Chronic hepatitis C needs to be treated to minimize or prevent liver damage. Antiviral medications help your body clear HCV. Many antiviral medications have the capability to cure the infection.

Treatment for chronic hepatitis may last a few or several 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 if the infection is diagnosed early.

You can take steps to avoid exposure to HCV. Using a barrier method, like 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 as well.

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