Are You at Risk for Hepatitis C?
All too often serious medical concerns remain hidden until the damage done announces its presence. Many times this announcement is accompanied by irreversible consequences. Such is the case for Hepatitis C.
An estimated 3.2 million persons in the United States have chronic Hepatitis C virus infection. Most people do not know they are infected because they do not look or feel sick. Such a person can unwittingly spread the virus.
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections that affect the liver; the most common types are Hepatitis A, B, and C.
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic”.
Acute Hepatitis C
Acute Hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. For most people acute infection leads to chronic infection and 75%-85% of the people who become infected with Hepatitis C develop chronic infection.
Chronic Hepatitis C
Chronic Hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the Hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.
Some people are at increased risk for Hepatitis C including:
- Having a sexual contact with a person who is infected with Hepatitis C (increases for those who have multiple sex partners, have sexually transmitted diseases to including HIV, engage in rough sex or share sexual toys)
- People who received body piercing, acupuncture or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments (the risk is low with licensed commercial tattoo facilities)
- Sharing personal items, such as razors or toothbrushes, that may have come in contact with the blood of an infected person
- Current injection drug users (currently the most common way Hepatitis C virus is spread in the United States)
- Past injection drug users, including those who injected only one time or many years ago
- Recipients of donated blood, blood products and organs (rare since blood screening became available in 1992)
- Hemodialysis patients
- Have regular contact with blood at work (for instance, health care workers)
- HIV infected persons
- Children born to mothers infected with Hepatitis C virus (this occurs in about 1 out of 20 babies born to mothers with HCV)
Approximately 70%-80% of people with acute hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. Some people, however, can have mild to severe symptoms soon after being infected, including:
- Fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements , joint pain and jaundice
For every 100 persons infected with Hepatitis C virus
- 75-85 people will develop chronic Hepatitis C virus infection; of those,
- 60-70 people will go on to develop chronic liver disease; of those,
- 5-20 people will go on to develop cirrhosis over a period of 20-30 years (faster if have uncontrolled HIV); of those
- 1-5 people will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer (more likely if also have uncontrolled HIV)
The next time you go in for your complete physical examination, talk with your doctor about being tested for hepatitis C. Remember, whatever you don’t know can hurt you and the one’s you love.