What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver infection that¡¯s caused by the hepatitis C virus. The type of virus distinguishes this illness from other forms of hepatitis, including hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Unlike hepatitis A, which is usually a short-term infection that the human body will clear on its own, hepatitis C is more likely to become a lifelong infection if not treated. Also, unlike both hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.
An estimated 15% to 25% of people who contract hepatitis C will fully recover within several months with no lasting impairment of the liver¡¯s vital functions of cleansing the blood and metabolizing nutrients. Some people may never even develop symptoms and thus never know they have the disease. However, the majority of people who contract this illness will go on to develop a long-term infection that can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hepatitis C is a major cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis (scarring) and the most common reason for liver transplants in the United States.
At Tampa General Hospital¡¯s Liver Disease and Hepatology Program, we¡¯re committed to helping patients cope with the life-altering effects of hepatitis C. In fact, we have some of the shortest wait times for transplantation in the country and our survival rates are consistently at or above national averages. If you or a loved one is coping with serious complications resulting from hepatitis C, we invite you to call 1-800-505-7769 to learn more about our services, including everything from non-surgical treatments to liver transplants. In the meantime, here¡¯s some information about this disease:
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Although many people with hepatitis C will experience no symptoms for many years, some people may notice these signs within six months of the virus entering their bloodstream:
- Clay-colored stool
- Dark urine
- Joint pain
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
If the illness progresses to become liver disease, the affected individual may also experience fluid buildup in the abdomen or legs, gallstones, kidney failure, intense itching, muscle weakness, vomiting of blood and weight loss.
How Do You Get Hepatitis C?
The virus that causes hepatitis C typically spreads when the blood from an infected person enters the body of someone who isn¡¯t infected. The most common ways this happens include:
- Sharing needles, syringes or drug injection equipment
- Unintentional needle sticks in health care settings
- Contracting the virus during childbirth from a mother who has hepatitis C
Less commonly, you could get hepatitis C through having unprotected sex with an infected person, getting a tattoo or body piercing where the equipment is not properly sterilized and using razors or toothbrushes that may have come into contact with an infected person¡¯s blood.
Who¡¯s at Risk for Hepatitis C?
If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you¡¯re in the age group with the highest incidence of hepatitis C infection. Theories vary as to why, but recent studies point to unsafe medical procedures at that time and the lack of routine screening for the virus. You may also have an increased risk of contracting the virus if you:
- Are a health care worker who is exposed to infected blood
- Have ever injected or inhaled illegal drugs
- Were born to a woman with hepatitis C
- Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Received blood-clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Have been in prison
- Have HIV
Complications of Hepatitis C
Because hepatitis C can cause liver damage for many years without displaying noticeable symptoms, there¡¯s an increased chance of developing serious complications such as cirrhosis, which is liver scarring that severely impairs liver function and can even lead to liver failure. Additionally, a small percentage of people with hepatitis C go on to develop liver cancer.
Is Hepatitis C Curable?
Recent medical advancements have led to a 90% cure rate for people with chronic hepatitis C who receive treatment with oral medications taken daily for up to six months.
Can it Be Prevented?
The CDC recommends that you receive a screening blood test if you¡¯re in a high-risk group for contracting the virus. If you test positive for the virus, you can seek treatment to reduce your chances of experiencing serious complications.
Other ways to prevent infection include:
- Avoiding illegal drug use, especially sharing of needles
- Using a latex condom when having sex
- Ensuring that your technician uses sterilized equipment if you get a tattoo, body piercing or manicure
If you believe you may have contracted the hepatitis C virus, your first step should be to consult with your primary care doctor or use our convenient, online Physician Finder tool to locate a doctor. If you¡¯d like to learn more about the services we offer for hepatitis C patients at Tampa General Hospital¡¯s Liver Disease and Hepatology Program, contact us today at 1-800-505-7769.