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What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is infection of the liver with a virus (hepatitis C virus).

Some people with hepatitis C never have serious health problems, but up to 20% get liver cirrhosis. Cirrhosis means liver scarring, so the liver cannot work well. At least 50% of the people infected with hepatitis C virus may have chronic liver disease, meaning liver inflammation (swelling) is long-lasting. About 1% to 5% of infected people die of liver disease.

What Causes Hepatitis C?

The cause is the hepatitis C virus.

The virus is passed to others by infected blood, as when people share needles to inject drugs. The next most common way is anal sex.

Other ways to get hepatitis C are by pricking a finger on a contaminated needle; tattooing, body piercing, or acupuncture with nonsterile equipment; mother-to-baby infection during birth; and blood transfusions or organ transplants done in the United States before July 1992 or in other countries with poor blood donor screening.

Hugging, kissing, toilet seats, or sharing cups or kitchen utensils cannot transmit hepatitis C.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

Most people have no symptoms, but symptoms can be mild to severe and sometimes life-threatening. Symptoms of acute disease include headache, aches and pains, fatigue, and upset stomach. These can last for several weeks. The most common symptom of chronic hepatitis C is fatigue. Others are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and pain in the upper abdomen (belly), under the ribs.

How Is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?

People often find out about having hepatitis C by a routine blood test showing high liver enzyme levels or when donating blood and hepatitis C antibody is found. If your health care provider suspects hepatitis C, blood tests will be done to look for the presence of antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. The antibody is a substance made by the immune, or infection-fighting, system in response to an infection. Tests may include a liver biopsy to help make decisions about treatment. In a liver biopsy, the doctor uses a special needle to take small samples of cells from the liver.

How Is Hepatitis C Treated?

Acute hepatitis C generally has no specific treatment. Most people can receive care at home. Rest and proper diet are important for severe symptoms. Avoid alcohol and substances that hurt the liver.

People with chronic disease are treated with newer medicines that can actually cure hepatitis C. Success depends on which type of hepatitis C virus caused the infection. With genotypes 2 and 3 the success rate is very high. The cure rates are lower in those with genotypes 1 and 4. In severe cases liver transplantation may be needed.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Hepatitis C:

  • DO get help for a drug problem if you have one.
  • DO follow a healthy lifestyle. Avoid alcohol, which may further damage the liver. If possible, give it up completely.
  • DO get regular medical checkups.
  • DO see your health care provider right away if you get jaundice (yellow skin and dark-colored urine), pain in your abdomen, nausea or vomiting lasting more than 1 to 2 days, or blood in your vomit.
  • DO call your health care provider if hepatitis C symptoms persist after completion of treatment.
  • DON’T take medicines that can hurt the liver, such as acetaminophen.
  • DON’T share needles.
  • DON’T breast-feed your baby.

Contact the following sources:

  • Hepatitis Foundation International
    Tel: (800) 891-0707
  • American Gastroenterological Association
    Tel: (301) 654-2055
  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
    Tel: (800) 891-5389

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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