Overview and Facts
Hepatitis C is an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver and leads to inflammation. Most people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) have no symptoms. In fact, most people don’t know they have the hepatitis C infection until liver damage shows up, decades later, during routine medical tests.
Hepatitis C is one of several hepatitis viruses and is generally considered to be among the most serious of these viruses. Hepatitis C is passed through contact with contaminated blood — most commonly through needles shared during illegal drug use.
Symptoms and Facts
Many people who are infected with the hepatitis C do not have symptoms.
If the infection has been present for many years, the liver may be permanently scarred, a condition called cirrhosis. In many cases, there may be no symptoms of the disease until cirrhosis has developed.
The following symptoms could occur with hepatitis C infection:
- Abdominal pain (right upper abdomen)
- Bleeding varices (dilated veins in the esophagus)
- Dark urine
- Generalized itching
- Loss of appetite
- Low-grade fever
- Pale or clay-colored stools
Hepatitis C is often found during blood tests for a routine physical or other medical procedure.
- Elevated liver enzymes
- ELISA assay to detect hepatitis C antibody
- Hepatitis C PCR test
- Hepatitis C genotype. Six genotypes exist. Most Americans have genotype 1 infection, which is the most difficult to treat.
- Hepatitis virus serology
- Liver biopsy
Treatment and Care
There is no cure for hepatitis C, but medications in some cases can suppress the virus for a long period of time.
Some patients with hepatitis C benefit from treatment with interferon alpha or a combination of interferon alpha and ribavirin. Interferon alpha is given by injection just under the skin and has a number of side effects, including:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Loss of appetite
- Low white blood cell counts
- Thinning of hair
Treatment with interferon alpha may also affect the production of white blood cells and platelets. Most patients receive weekly injections with a form called pegylated interferon alpha. Interferon is given along with antiviral medication, most commonly ribavirin.
Ribavirin is a capsule taken twice daily. The major side effect is low red blood cells (anemia). Ribavirin also causes birth defects. Women should avoid getting pregnant during, and for 6 months following, treatment.
A “sustained response” means that the patient remains free of hepatitis C virus 6 months after stopping treatment. This does not mean that the patient is cured, but that the levels of active hepatitis C virus in the body are very low and are probably not causing more or as much damage.
Rest may be recommended during the acute phase of the disease when the symptoms are most severe. All patients with hepatitis C should get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.
People with hepatitis C should also be careful not to take vitamins, nutritional supplements, or new over-the-counter medications without first discussing it with their health care provider.
People with hepatitis C should avoid any substances that are toxic to the liver (hepatotoxic), including alcohol. Even moderate amounts of alcohol speed up the progression of hepatitis C, and alcohol reduces the effectiveness of treatment.
Living Your Life
If you receive a diagnosis of hepatitis C, your doctor will likely recommend certain lifestyle changes. These measures will help keep you healthy longer and protect the health of others as well:
- Stop drinking alcohol. Alcohol speeds the progression of liver disease.
- Avoid medications that may cause liver damage. Review your medications with your doctor, including the over-the-counter medications you take. Your doctor may recommend avoiding certain medications.
- Keep your body healthy. Make healthy lifestyle choices each day. For example, choose a diet full of fruits and vegetables, exercise most days of the week, and get enough sleep so that you wake feeling rested.
- Help prevent others from coming in contact with your blood. Cover any wounds you may have and don’t share razors or toothbrushes. Don’t donate blood, body organs or semen, and advise health care workers that you have the virus.