What is hepatitis C?

Contracting the hepatitis C virus (HCV) can lead to developing hepatitis C, which is an infectious disease that causes your liver to become inflamed. Hepatitis C can be acute (short-term), lasting from a few weeks to six months. It can also be chronic (life-long).

Chronic hepatitis C can lead to irreversible scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver damage, and liver cancer.

Hepatitis C spreads through direct contact with infected blood. This can happen through:

  • sharing infected needles, like those used for drugs or tattoos
  • accidental needle pricks in a healthcare setting
  • sharing razors or toothbrushes, which is less common
  • sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis C, which is less common

Pregnant women with hepatitis C can also transmit the virus to their babies.

You should clean blood spills with a mixture of one part bleach to 10 parts water. This practice is known as “universal precautions.”

Universal precautions are necessary because you can never be sure that the blood isn’t infected with viruses like hepatitis C, hepatitis B, or HIV. Hepatitis C can also last up to three weeks at room temperature.

Nearly four million people in the United States have hepatitis C. And up to 80 percent don’t show symptoms in the early stages.

However, hepatitis C can develop into a chronic condition in about 75 to 85 percent of people who contract the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Some symptoms of acute hepatitis C are:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • lack of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stomach pain

Chronic hepatitis C causes cirrhosis and presents the same symptoms of acute hepatitis C, along with the following:

  • abdominal swelling
  • swelling of the extremities
  • shortness of breath
  • jaundice
  • easy bruising or bleeding
  • joint pain
  • spider angioma
  • gynecomastia — swelling of the breast tissue
  • rashes, skin, and nail changes

Jaundice is when the skin and the whites of the eyes (sclera) turn yellow. This happens when there’s too much bilirubin (yellow pigment) in the blood. Bilirubin is a byproduct of broken-down red blood cells.

Normally bilirubin gets broken down in the liver and released from the body in the stool. But if the liver is damaged, it can’t properly process the bilirubin. It will then build up in the bloodstream. This results in the skin and eyes looking yellow.

Since jaundice is a symptom of hepatitis C and cirrhosis, your doctor will treat those conditions. Severe cases of jaundice may require blood transfusions.

Spider angioma, also known as spider nevus or nevus araneus, are spider-like blood vessels that appear underneath the skin. They appear as a red dot with lines that extend outward.

Spider angioma are associated with increased levels of estrogen. They can be seen on healthy individuals, especially children, as well as people with hepatitis C.

For people with hepatitis C, as the liver becomes damaged, estrogen levels will increase.

Spider angioma mostly appear on:

  • the face, near the cheekbones
  • the hands
  • the forearms
  • the ears
  • the upper chest wall

Spider angioma tend to fade away on their own or as the condition improves. And they can be treated with laser therapy if they don’t go away.

Ascites is the excess buildup of fluid in the abdomen that causes the stomach to take on a swollen, balloon-like appearance. Ascites is a symptom that may appear in the advanced stages of liver disease.

When your liver gets scarred, it decreases in function and causes pressure to build up in the veins. This excess pressure is called portal hypertension. It causes fluid to pool around the abdomen.

Most people with ascites will notice a sudden weight gain, and that their stomach sticks out more than usual. Ascites may also cause:

  • discomfort
  • difficulty breathing
  • fluid buildup in the chest toward the lungs
  • a fever

Some immediate steps your doctor may recommend are reducing your salt intake and taking diuretics, or water pills, like furosemide or Aldactone. These steps are taken together.

If you have ascites, you should also check your weight every day and contact your doctor if you gain more than 10 pounds, or two pounds per day for three days in a row. If your doctor has determined you have ascites, they may also recommend a liver transplant.

Similar to ascites, edema is the buildup of fluid in the body’s tissues. This happens when the capillaries, or tiny blood vessels, in your body leak fluid, and build up in the surrounding tissue.

Edema gives the affected area a swollen or puffy appearance. People who have chronic hepatitis C usually see edema in the legs, ankles, and feet.

Having stretched or shiny skin, or dimpled or pitted skin, are other symptoms of edema. You can check for dimpling by pressing the skin for several seconds and seeing if a dent remains. While mild edema goes away on its own, your doctor may prescribe furosemide or other water pills to help flush out excess fluid.

In the advanced stages of hepatitis C, you may see easy bruising and excessive bleeding for no apparent reason. Abnormal bruising is believed to be the result of the liver slowing the production of platelets, or proteins needed to clot blood.

In more serious cases, there can be excessive bleeding of the nose or gums, or blood in the urine.

Lichen planus is a skin disorder that causes small bumps or pimples in areas where your muscles join two bones together. The replication of the hepatitis C virus in the skin cells is thought to cause lichen planus. The bumps usually appear on the following areas:

  • arms
  • torso
  • genitals
  • nails
  • scalp

The skin may also feel scaly and itchy. And you may experience hair loss, skin lesions, and pain. Talk to your doctor about a treatment if you exhibit any of these symptoms as a result of hepatitis C.

PCT is a skin disorder that causes the following symptoms:

  • skin discoloration
  • hair loss
  • increased facial hair
  • thicker skin

Blisters often form in areas that are usually exposed to the sun, like the face and hands. A buildup of iron in the liver, and overproduction of uroporphyrinogen, a protein, in the blood and urine causes PCT.

Treatment for PCT involves iron and alcohol restriction, sun protection, and minimizing estrogen exposure.

Terry’s nails is a symptom where the normal pinkish color of the nail plates turns a white-silver color, and has a pink-red transverse band, or separation line, near the tips of the fingers.

The American Family Physicianreported in 2004 that 80 percent of patients with cirrhosis will develop Terry’s nails.

Raynaud’s syndrome causes the blood vessels in your body to constrict or narrow. Some people with hepatitis C may feel numb and cold in their fingers and toes when the temperature changes or when they are stressed.

As they warm up or de-stress, they may feel a prickly or stinging pain. Your skin may also turn white or blue, depending on your blood circulation.

To manage Raynaud’s syndrome, you should make sure you’re dressing warmly when the weather is cold. While this condition currently has no cure, you can manage the symptoms and treat the underlying cause such as hepatitis C.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medication to promote blood flow.

Chronic hepatitis C rarely shows symptoms in the early stages, but can be treated and cured if diagnosed early. Visible symptoms may be a sign that the condition has advanced.

If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of hepatitis C, contact a doctor. After your treatment, your doctor will test your blood after three months to see if the virus is gone.