Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is found in the blood of persons who have this disease. HCV is spread by contact with the blood of an infected person. HCV directly attacks the liver and can lead to liver damage and in some cases death. Hepatitis C was formerly known as non-A non-B hepatitis.

Who Is at Risk?

High-risk activities for acquiring hepatitis C include:

  • injecting illegal drugs - this risk exists even if the drug abuse only lasted for a short time or occurred many years ago
  • receiving organs from donors whose blood contained HCV
  • getting pricked with a needle that has infected blood on it--mainly a risk for health-care workers
  • frequently being exposed to blood products such as those used to treat hemophilia or chronic kidney failure
  • "snorting" cocaine using shared equipment
  • getting a tattoo or body piercing with nonsterile instruments that were used on someone infected with HCV
  • using an infected person's toothbrush, razor, or anything else that may have blood on it
  • engaging in high-risk sexual behavior, such as having multiple partners or failing to use condoms

Symptoms

Although hepatitis C damages the liver, 80% of people with the disease do not have symptoms. In those who do, symptoms may not appear for 10-20 years, or even longer. Even then, the symptoms usually come and go and are mild and vague. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms appear, the damage may be very serious.

A minority of people have symptoms during the early acute phase of the infection. These symptoms typically develop 5-12 weeks after exposure to HCV. Some people describe the symptoms as being flulike. The symptoms may last a few weeks or months.

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Pain over the liver (on the right side of the abdomen, just under the rib cage)
  • Jaundice - A condition in which the skin and the whites of the eyes turn yellow
  • Dark-colored urine (may look like cola or tea)
  • Stools become pale in color (grayish or clay colored)

Prolonged nausea and vomiting can cause dehydration. If you have been vomiting repeatedly, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Headache
  • Not urinating
  • Irritability

Chronic hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver in many people, a condition traditionally associated with alcoholism. Cirrhosis is a condition in which healthy liver tissue is replaced by fibrous tissue, followed by scarlike hardening. As this happens, the liver gradually begins to fail, or lose its ability to carry out its normal functions. Eventually, symptoms develop. Symptoms of cirrhosis include the following:

  • Fluid retention causing swelling of the belly (ascites), legs, or whole body
  • Persistent jaundice
  • Fatigue
  • Disturbances in sleeping
  • Itchy skin
  • Loss of appetite,weight loss, wasting
  • Vomiting with blood in the vomit
  • Mental disturbances such as confusion, lethargy, extreme sleepiness, or hallucinations (hepatic encephalopathy

Treatment

Good health habits are essential for those who have hepatitis C, especially avoidance of alcohol and other medications and drugs that can harm the liver. Although there is not yet a proven cure for hepatitis C, some people benefit from drug treatment. You should discuss treatment with a doctor if you have hepatitis C. Standard medicines available include the following:

  • peginterferon alfa-2b (brand name: PEG-Intron)
  • peginterferon alfa-2a (brand name: Pegasys)

These medicines are given as a weekly shot. In most cases ribavirin supplement in pill form is given along with interferon. Carefully following your doctor's advice and sticking with your treatment plan will reduce your risk of further liver damage.