You may have seen numerous literature and commercials about chronic hepatitis C (HCV) and for good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 3.9 million people in the United States may have the chronic form of this virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 70 million people are affected worldwide.
What exactly is chronic HCV? In a nutshell, it refers to ongoing inflammation of your liver. But it can lead to symptoms throughout your body. Over time, living with this condition can cause your body to be especially vulnerable to serious health complications.
HCV is transmitted through contact with the blood. It’s rarely transmitted through sexual contact from someone infected with the virus. Ultimately, this infection leads to liver inflammation and a host of other issues that can severely damage your health.
The virus has two stages, acute and chronic. The acute stage happens within six months of being exposed to the virus. For some, this is a short-term illness. But according to the CDC, most people — about 75 to 80 percent — will develop chronic HCV. This means it can be lifelong. Most people don’t realize they have the virus until other symptoms within their body start.
Although the hepatitis A, B, and C viruses all cause hepatitis, they are three different and distinct viruses.
The liver’s job is to process blood and filter toxins from your body. It produces proteins, important blood components, and bile, which helps you digest food. It also stores glucose and vitamins. HCV causes inflammation that interrupts the liver’s ability to perform these vital functions.
Early symptoms may be mild and easily dismissed but early treatment is critical to preventing serious damage. When a chronic infection occurs, it can cause cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, over time. As HCV progresses, symptoms like skin problems, blood disorders, and weight loss may appear. Dangerous outcomes like severe liver damage, liver cancer, and liver failure can also occur.
A blood test can measure HCV antibodies in your bloodstream. If you have antibodies it means you’ve been exposed to the virus. In most cases, you’ll need to take a second blood test for your doctor to confirm an HCV infection.
A healthy liver is crucial to your health as it supports many other body systems. One function of the liver is to produce bile, a substance needed to break down fats. Your body stores bile in the gallbladder, then sends it to the beginning section of the small intestine when needed. Bile is then combined with stomach acids and digestive fluids from the pancreas, which help the intestines absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.
HCV can severely hinder the liver’s ability to produce bile. Poor bile production can make it difficult and uncomfortable to digest fatty foods. You also might feel some pain throughout the abdomen from a buildup of fluid in the stomach. This is known as ascites. It occurs when the damaged liver doesn’t produce enough albumin, a substance that regulates the amount of fluid in cells.
Other digestive symptoms include:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- pale or clay-colored stools
Severe pain can occur if your gallbladder becomes inflamed from HCV. This is an extremely rare cause of gallbladder inflammation and only occurs in the acute stage of the virus.
Central nervous system
When your liver doesn’t filter toxins from the blood, it can damage the central nervous system. This can lead to a variety of symptoms like sweet or musty breath, difficulty with small motor skills, and sleep disturbances. Dry eyes and mouth are sometimes associated with HCV.
A buildup of toxins in the brain can cause:
- poor concentration
- personality changes
Advanced symptoms include:
- abnormal shaking
- slurred speech
Severe cases may cause coma.
In addition to filtering toxins, the liver also produces proteins needed for healthy blood and helps to regulate blood clotting. A poorly functioning liver can create blood flow problems and increase pressure in the portal (main) vein that leads to the liver. This can result in portal hypertension, which may force blood to find alternate veins. These veins can burst, causing variceal bleeding. This is severe internal bleeding.
A poorly functioning liver is unable to properly absorb, transport, and store iron. This can result in anemia.
Integumentary system (skin, hair, and nails)
Hepatitis C is associated with a wide variety of skin problems. Some common conditions include easy bruising, loss of skin pigment, rashes, and itching. Bilirubin is an important substance that comes from the break down of hemoglobin. When the liver can’t do its job, bilirubin can build up and cause jaundice, or the yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes. Poor liver function can also lead to poor nutrition. This leads to inadequate growth of hair and nails as well.
Endocrine and immune systems
The endocrine system regulates hormones. As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid gland delivers hormones into the bloodstream. Sometimes HCV can cause the immune system to mistakenly attack or damage thyroid tissue. This may lead to either:
- hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), which can cause sleep disorders and weight loss
- hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), which can cause fatigue and weight gain
A healthy liver also helps manage how sugar is used in the body. The body’s inability to control sugar levels can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Many people infected with HCV have no symptoms, especially in the acute stage. Some report general fatigue, fever, or nonspecific aches and pains. Most signs and symptoms are more noticeable if the disease becomes chronic. In its chronic state, you’ll likely benefit from treatment in order to prevent permanent liver damage and other potential life-threatening complications.