Hepatitis C, also called Hep C, is a viral infection that
can cause inflammation and eventually serious damage to the liver. The virus is
most commonly spread through human contact with infected blood. The symptoms of
Hep C are usually very mild to undetectable, so you may have no idea that
you’re infected. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of
the liver or liver cancer, both of which can be fatal.
The people most at risk for contracting Hep C are users of
illegal intravenous drugs, particularly persons who share needles with someone
who’s infected. Medical professionals are also at risk when they come in
contact with an infected person who’s bleeding or has an open wound. Historically,
blood transfusions and organ transplants exposed people to Hep C, but modern
screening processes have largely eliminated that risk in the United States. In
rare instances, the virus can be spread through unprotected sexual contact or
by sharing personal hygiene items, such as toothbrushes and razors.
About 15 to 20
percent of people infected with hepatitis C don’t require medical treatment and
suffer no long-term damage to their health. But if your immune system doesn’t resolve the problem on its own, Hep C
enters a chronic phase where the infection begins to damage the liver. However,
there still may be minimal or no symptoms. Because of this, chronic Hep C can
go unnoticed for years, or only be discovered from a blood test.
Treatments for Hepatitis C are evolving quickly and vary
based on the specific genotype, or version, of the virus. The current standard
of care is use of an anti-viral medication, called a polymerase inhibitor, to help eradicate the infection. This
therapy is combined with ribavirin, which is an immune system booster. A third
medication, called interferon,
is sometimes added. These treatments can take from 12 to 24 weeks. The good
news is that a large percentage of persons with chronic hepatitis C respond
positively and can be cured.
The latest treatments for Hepatitis C utilize what are
called “direct-acting antivirals.” These medications, which include protease
inhibitors, target specific aspects of the virus and prevent it from
replicating. These newer antivirals are packaged with other drugs, such as
ribavirin, into multi-drug cocktails that attack the infection on several
fronts. These newest treatments are up to 96% effective, even among patients
who didn’t respond to prior therapies. All of these treatments carry a risk for
side effects. Your doctor will tailor the therapy based on how long you’ve had hepatitis
and if you’re also being treated for another condition, such as HIV.
As in most things
medical, some patients respond better than others, and some strains of the
disease are harder to fight than others. If hepatitis C progresses to the point
that the liver is no longer able to function, liver transplantation may be the
only viable course of action.
It’s important to
note that many people with chronic hepatitis C live perfectly normal lives.
Clinicians and scientists wish that this disease was more predictable, but for
now, that is simply not possible. Even with the latest therapeutic advances, every effort should be made
to avoid becoming infected by the hepatitis C virus.