Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is specifically caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
Around 2.4 million people in the United States have Hepatitis C. Many people do not know they have the disease because it can progress with no symptoms in the beginning.
In about 30% of people who get Hepatitis C, the immune system will clear the infection by itself. This usually happens within 6 months.
In 70% of people infected, chronic Hepatitis C will develop. This can eventually lead to other health problems.
There are seven genotypes of the hepatitis C virus across the globe. Out of those genotypes, there are 67 subtypes. Treatment of the virus will depend on which genotype of the virus is present.
The most common genotype in the United States is type 1.
Once a person has been infected, hepatitis C can be acute or chronic.
Acute Hepatitis C
Acute Hepatitis C can start to develop 2 weeks to 6 months after the virus enters the bloodstream. Acute hepatitis C usually does not have symptoms so many people go undiagnosed.
More than half of people with acute hepatitis C develop chronic hepatitis C.
Chronic Hepatitis C
Chronic hepatitis C is a long-term infection. It can be lifelong and if it goes untreated, it can cause other health problems. This includes:
- Liver damage
- Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
- Liver cancer
Chronic hepatitis C is the most common reason for someone to need a liver transplant in the United States.
There were 15,713 deaths in the United States in 2018 related to chronic hepatitis C. That number reported to the CDC is most likely an underestimate.
A new case of hepatitis C is caused by coming in contact with an infected person’s blood.
How is Hepatitis C Spread?
The most common way hepatitis C is spread in the United States is by sharing drug needles with an infected person. Other possibilities include:
- Being born to a mother with hepatitis C. For this reason, it is strongly suggested for every woman to be tested during pregnancy.
- Sharing personal items that have come in contact with an infected person’s blood. Such as toothbrushes or razors.
- Having unprotected sex with someone infected with hepatitis C.
- Being pierced or tattooed with needles after someone is infected with hepatitis C. Especially if the tools were not properly sanitized.
- Accidentally getting stuck by a needle used on someone with hepatitis C.
- Contact with the blood or an open sore of someone with hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C was commonly spread by blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992. Now there is routine testing of blood and organs, so it is unlikely to be infected this way.
Who is at Risk For Getting Hepatitis C?
Anyone who falls into these categories is at a higher risk of hepatitis C infection:
- Those who use needles for illicit drugs.
- Have been in contact with infected blood or needles at work.
- Born to a mother with hepatitis C.
- Have tattoos or body piercings not done by professionals.
- Have lived or worked in a prison.
- Had an organ transplant or blood transfusion before July 1992.
- Have received clotting factors for hemophilia before 1987.
- Have had a sexually transmitted disease, or currently has HIV/AIDS.
Most people do not have symptoms of acute hepatitis C. If they do develop symptoms it would be the following:
- Feeling tired
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Gray or clay-colored stools
- Jaundice – yellowish eyes and skin
- Joint pain
- Dark yellow urine
Someone with chronic hepatitis C will not have symptoms until they start to have liver complications.
Hepatitis C can be cured. There are newer medications out that are effective in more than 95% of people who take them for 8 to 12 weeks. The medication used is based on the genotype of the infecting virus. Early treatment may prevent cirrhosis or liver cancer.
The following medications are approved by the FDA to treat hepatitis C: