Hepatitis C, also known as hep C and viral hepatitis, is an infection of the liver. The possible hepatitis C symptoms that someone can exhibit is fatigue, exhaustion, loss of appetite and abdominal pain. However 80% of the patients tested for hepatitis C do not show any early symptoms at all. But even if there are no noticeable symptoms, the liver and the immune system continues to fight the virus. The immune response can be as strong as to scar the liver which can lead to further complications.
In most people that have it, there are no noticeable hepatitis C symptoms. This means that they can act, look and feel normal without knowing that they are actually infected with hep C. It is usually when the liver starts failing or cirrhosis has developed that the more prominent symptoms start showing up.
The hepatitis C virus attacks the liver cells. The immune system starts combating the infection, however this response damages and scars the liver which increases the risk of other unfavorable conditions appearing.
How does hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C spreads through exposure and contact with infected blood. Some of the ways this can occur are:
- Through injection of illicit drugs by sharing needles. The most common route of transmission.
- Blood transfusions that haven’t been screened for HCV. Prior to 1992 this was a possibility but since then every blood product or transfusion is monitored before it is approved, making it an extremely low possibility (one in 2 million).
- Accidental needle puncturing in health-care workers.
- Vertical transmission from mother to newborn. The occurence is 4 in 100 cases for HCV infected mothers that gave birth.
- Sexual intercourse. Although a small number compared to the other ways, the possibility of contracting hepatitis C after having unprotected sex with an infected person is estimated to be from 1% to 4%.
Hepatitis C has no vaccine so the best method of stopping it is to prevent it.
Unlike other types of hepatitis, hepatitis C isn’t transmitted by skin contact. Thus shaking hands, hugging and kissing do not increase the risk of transmission. As such, hepatitis C sufferers aren’t required to be isolated like hepatitis A and B patients.
Characteristic hepatitis C symptoms
In the beginning of an infection, the hepatitis C virus attacks the liver cells. This can lead to an inflamed liver. Fibrosis is the condition of the liver tissue trying to regenerate while scarring from the immune response is occurring. While most people with hep C generally feel well, some of the hepatitis C symptoms may be:
- Feeling fatigued and exhausted
- Abdominal or stomach pain
- Sudden loss of appetite
- Swelling or discomfort in the upper right side of the abdomen (location of the liver)
Darkly colored urine is also another possible symptom. It is rare to see jaundice (yellowing of the skin) as a hepatitis C symptom at an early stage.
75% to 85% of those infected with hepatitis C will have a chronic infection. Chronic symptoms of hepatitis C are:
- Weight loss
- Rash in the palms
- In men – breast enlargement
- Loss of apetite
- Blood clotting
- Spider-like vessels present on the skin
Those who suffer from chronic hepatitis C may encounter a persistent swelling of the liver as a result of the immune system trying to fight the virus.
If hepatitis C is left untreated and the condition of the patient worsens, liver failure is a high possibility. The risk for confusion and unconsciousness is also high, with some cases leading even to coma.
Those who have advanced cirrhosis may experience jaundice. This is due to the liver being unable to process a certain compound, yellow in color, that is called bilirubin.
How is hepatitis C treated?
When someone becomes infected with HCV and manifests hepatitis C symptoms, it is said to be an acute infection. Treatment for acute hepatitis has a higher response rate than for those with chronic hepatitis. However many doctors recommend to hold off any treatment for about eight to twelve weeks to see if the body is able to eliminate the virus on its own.
Medication for the treatment of hepatitis C exists but is imperfect. Two drugs that seem to work are pegylated interferon and ribavirin but some patients do not respond well to them. If you have hepatitis C symptoms you should see a doctor that specializes in this kind of treatment. Blood tests and a liver biopsy will be performed to assess the extent of liver scarring, if any, and recommend an appropriate course of action.
Antiviral medication might be held off for those who have an allergy to these types of drugs, those who have received a liver transplant, are pregnant or have serious untreated conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease or major depression.
Do liver transplants work for hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C accounts for 40% – 45% of all liver transplants in the U.S. The hepatitis C virus often recurs after a transplant, affecting the new liver as well. It is estimated that 24% of those who have recurrent hepatitis will develop cirrhosis within 5 years of the transplant. Despite this grim outlook, the survival rate is comparable to other types of patients who have had transplants for similar types of diseases.
The best way to prevent hepatitis C is to exercise caution.
- Do not share needles. Sterilize and clean medical instruments that deal with blood.
- Use condoms. Even though the risk of transmission by sexual contact is low, you don’t want to get infected with hep C.
- If you’re going to have a blood transfusion in a country that doesn’t regularly monitor for hepatitis, make plans to have a stockpile of blood for safe usage.
- Do not share toothbrushes and razors.
- Avoid exposure to infected blood. This is especially true for those who work in the medical field. Safer needle-usage techniques have been developed along with self-capping syringes that prevent accidental sticking.
Even though the symptoms and the name is similar to the other hepatitis viruses, hepatitis C is unrelated to them. HCV is a member of the Flaviviridae virus family which includes the same viruses that cause dengue and yellow fever.
If you suspect that you have HCV or exhibit hepatitis C symptoms, schedule for a blood test with the doctor.
It might seem like a scary disease but it is very hard to contract, unlike hepatitis A or B. Stay safe, stay informed.