Hepatitis C is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Chronic hepatitis C is also the most common chronic liver disease in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 3.2 million people in the United States are chronically infected and there are some 17,000 new cases of HCV infection every year.
Hepatitis C is primarily transmitted through direct contact with the blood of an infected person (e.g., blood transfusions). The virus can also be spread by sharing needles, syringes, razor blades or toothbrushes that are contaminated. Additionally, infected mothers run the risk of passing hepatitis C to their babies during during childbirth.
In rare cases, the virus can also be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex when the blood, saliva, semen or vaginal secretions of an infected partner enter the body.
Thanks to new medication regimens, hepatitis C can be cured. The newer treatments have far less severe side effects. According to the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD), medicine can cure acute hepatitis C in 8 weeks.
The earlier hepatitis C is diagnosed, the more successfully it can be treated.
Hepatitis C is most often asymptomatic (no symptoms). Although the virus can be sexually transmitted, it damages the liver, so you won't see any signs on your genitals, and may not notice any symptoms. The virus acts internally.
Within six months of exposure, however, the following symptoms may develop:
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever and fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
- Dark urine or gray-colored bowel movements
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
Symptoms of chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection may not show up for six months, or even decades after exposure, but can include all of the same symptoms listed above, along with serious inflammation of the liver. Even when no symptoms are present, hepatitis C can be transmitted to others. That's why getting tested is so important.
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How do people get infected with hepatitis C?
Anyone can get hepatitis C, usually through direct contact with the blood of an infected person.
The most common risk factors are:
- A history of STDs
- A history of unprotected sex
- A new sexual partner
- Multiple sexual partners
- A sexual partner or household member with hepatitis C
- Healthcare workers exposed to blood
- Hemophiliacs (people affected by a hereditary bleeding disorder)
- Intravenous (IV) drug use and sharing needles
- Alcohol abuse
- Tattoos, piercing or acupuncture
If you have hepatitis C, notify your partner(s) so he or she can also be tested and treated if necessary. Also, avoid alcohol and don't share needles, syringes, razor blades or toothbrushes. Use a latex condom every time you have vaginal or anal sex, and use a condom or dental dam if you have oral sex.
What are some ways that hepatitis C cannot be spread?
You cannot get hepatitis C through food, water, eating utensils, sneezing, kissing, holding hands or breastfeeding.
What if hepatitis C is untreated?
Medical treatment of hepatitis C is effective for many people and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 25% of people are spontaneously cured without treatment. For most people however, an undiagnosed and untreated hepatitis C infection can develop into liver disease. In rare cases, a chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection can also eventually result in liver cancer or cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).
Hepatitis C and HIV
People who have hepatitis C and are HIV-positive are more likely to suffer from chronic hepatitis C complications. To minimize your risk of becoming infected or spreading hepatitis C infection to others, get tested if you think you might have been exposed, and continue to use latex condoms and avoid any other activity that could expose you to the blood of an infected person.
In general, someone who has one STD is at greater risk for infection with other STDs, including HIV. That's because STDs may cause ulcers, sores, or otherwise break the skin or mucous membranes making carriers more susceptible to infection. Also, someone with one or more STDs may have a weakened immune system that makes them more vulnerable to other diseases.
Hepatitis C and pregnancy
There's a low risk that pregnant women with hepatitis C may transmit the virus to their babies. If you're pregnant and concerned about hepatitis C, be sure to speak with your OB/gynecologist.
How do I get tested for hepatitis C?
We make getting tested for hepatitis C simple. We offer a discreet at-home testing kit that will detect the virus, with results available usually within 3-5 business days. This is a convenient option for anyone with hepatitis C risk factors, including the Baby Boomer population (anyone born between 1945 and 1965). 1 in 30 Baby Boomers are at risk for hepatitis C and many do not know they have the infection.
What hepatitis C Test results mean
A positive hepatitis C test result may mean that you have an active hepatitis C infection or that you had an infection in the past that spontaneously cured. Rarely, a positive result could be due to another virus infection and not hepatitis C.
A negative hepatitis C test result means that the virus was not detected in your blood. But because hepatitis C may not be detectable for up to 3 months after you are infected you should get tested again three months after exposure to confirm that you're negative. Repeat testing is critical to ensure the most accurate diagnosis.
If you test positive, we're here to help. You'll have the opportunity to consult with a doctor on the phone. We'll answer your questions, refer you to a specialist and help you determine the next steps based on your specific circumstances.
Note: If you test positive for hepatitis C, hepatitis B, HIV and syphilis, you should not donate blood.
When to test for hepatitis C
A “testing window” is the period of time between when you contract an STD and when the test turns positive. For example, if you had unprotected sex last night and became infected with hepatitis C, the test might not be positive yet. Our doctors recommend testing 3 weeks after exposure, and then again in three months.
Is there a cure or treatment for hepatitis C?
In most cases, hepatitis C can be treated and even cured. If your test results are positive, treatment by a liver or infectious disease specialist (a hepatologist, for example) is recommended. If you have hepatitis C, our doctors further recommend that you get vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B as precautionary measures (there is no vaccine for hepatitis C).
Acute hepatitis C
If you have an acute (short-term) hepatitis C infection, depending on the severity of your symptoms, no treatment may be necessary. Be sure to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, eat a healthy diet, and avoid alcohol, sedatives and painkillers. You'll need to see a doctor for managing the infection and follow-up testing.
Chronic hepatitis C
If you've been diagnosed with chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection, antiviral medications can slow the effects of liver damage. If your liver is seriously damaged, a liver transplant may be necessary. Avoidance of alcohol is critical for anyone with a hepatitis C infection.
Pregnancy and treatment
There's a low risk that pregnant women with hepatitis C may transmit the virus to their babies. If you're pregnant and concerned about hepatitis C, see your OB/gynecologist about the risks involved, and to identify a treatment that's best for you and your baby.
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