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Hepatitis C

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Hepatitis C is an infectious disease of the liver. Worldwide, health experts estimate that 180 million people have chronic hepatitis C, with more than 4 million of those cases in the United States.

Hepatitis C, like all forms of hepatitis, can damage the liver. Of people infected, 55 to 85 percent will develop chronic infection, and 75 percent of those with chronic infection will develop chronic liver disease.

Causes

Hepatitis C is caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus. This virus causes chronic (long-term) infection in more than 85 percent of infected people, often leading to chronic liver disease. Hepatitis C is unrelated to any of the other known hepatitis viruses (A, B, D, and E).

Transmission

You can get hepatitis C from infected blood or body fluids. Today, the most common way people get infected is by needle-sharing during intravenous drug use. Most new infections occur among intravenous drug users. In addition, an infected pregnant woman can infect her unborn baby.

Since 1992, when reliable blood screening procedures became available, the risk of transmission of hepatitis C by blood transfusion has fallen to less than one per million units of transfused blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rarely, the virus can be transmitted through sexual intercourse.

Hepatitis C is not transmitted through shaking hands, coughing, sneezing, breastfeeding, or sharing cups and utensils.

Symptoms

Most people with acute or chronic hepatitis C have few, if any, symptoms and are not even aware they are infected. If there are symptoms, they may include

  • Dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea or vomiting

Symptoms of acute hepatitis C, if they appear at all, generally appear 6 to 12 weeks after exposure to the virus.

Diagnosis

Healthcare providers can diagnose hepatitis C with a blood test.

If you are diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, your healthcare provider may advise you to have a liver biopsy to find out if you have chronic liver disease. Unfortunately, by the time a healthcare provider diagnoses serious liver disease, liver damage can be considerable and even irreversible. This damage often results in cirrhosis (severe liver disease) or liver cancer.

The symptoms of liver damage may not appear for several years. Therefore, it is important for people at high risk of infection to be tested for hepatitis C so they can start treatment as early as possible. High-risk groups include

  • People who had transfusions of blood or blood products before routine blood screening began
  • People receiving dialysis
  • People who may have had intimate contact with anyone infected with hepatitis C
  • Healthcare workers exposed to infected people
  • Current or former injection-drug users
  • People with abnormal liver tests
  • People who are HIV positive

Treatment

If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C infection, your healthcare provider will examine you for liver disease and prescribe medicine to get rid of the virus. Two medicines are used to treat hepatitis C: interferon and ribavirin. Most health experts advise using both drugs together. The response to treatment varies from person to person.

About 15 to 25 percent of those infected with hepatitis C will recover completely.

Prevention

Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C infection, However, you can take steps to protect yourself from becoming infected with hepatitis C virus and to prevent passing the virus to others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends

  • Don't share personal care items that might have blood on them, such as razors or toothbrushes
  • Avoid injected drugs or, for drug users, enter a treatment program
  • Never share needles, syringes, water, or "works" (equipment for intravenous drug use) and get vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B if you are a drug user
  • Consider the risks of getting tattoos or body piercings. You can get infected if the tools have someone else's blood on them or if the artist or piercer does not follow good health practices.
  • Don't donate blood, organs, or tissue if you have hepatitis C

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Last Updated October 01, 2009