Hepatitis is when inflammation occurs in the liver due to infection, disease, poisoning, or excessive drug and alcohol use. With hepatitis C, not all people will experience symptoms although many do, and the condition can lead to life-threatening complications.
Some of those with hepatitis C have only an acute illness that develops within 6 months of exposure. However, in 75–85 percent of people with hepatitis C, symptoms are chronic and potentially lifelong.
In the United States, the authorities estimate that chronic hepatitis C may affect between 2.4 million and 3.9 million people.
Hepatitis C can damage a person’s liver, a large, two-lobed organ in the upper right part of the torso. The liver performs essential functions that include producing vital substances that the body needs.
Among the liver’s jobs are making bile, storing and releasing blood sugars, and filtering toxic substances and drugs from the body. Hepatitis C, or HCV, can be dangerous once it starts to impair these liver functions.
In this article, we look at the physical impact of HCV and its possible complications.
HCV has two phases that doctors call acute and chronic. Symptoms vary depending on the phase of the viral infection.
While many people with HCV show no signs of the disease, symptoms in others might occur as soon as 2 weeks after exposure and last for up to 6 months.
Acute infections may resolve on their own or with treatment with certain antiviral therapies. People with an acute infection may experience symptoms such as:
- a yellow tint to the skin and eyes
- joint aches
- loss of appetite
- stomach or abdominal pain
- dark urine
- clay-colored stool
Many of those who progress to a chronic HCV infection may continue without symptoms or have more general symptoms, including lingering fatigue.
Other types of hepatitis, for example, hepatitis A and B, may present with similar symptoms to HCV.
Anyone with symptoms that suggest hepatitis should speak with their doctor immediately. The doctor can then arrange testing to determine their cause.
HCV can develop into a condition that causes severe or life-threatening complications.
Many of these complications can increase the risk of HCV becoming fatal.
HCV is a durable virus that can survive for up to 6 weeks at room temperature on surfaces outside of a living organism. HCV is contagious, and people spread the virus through contaminated blood or body fluids.
- The ways people spread the virus are as follows:
- sharing needles or syringes
- sharing other paraphernalia for illicit drug use
- needle stick
- injuries among healthcare workers
- maternal-fetal transmission, where a pregnant woman with HCV passes the virus onto the fetus
- sharing of razors or toothbrushes
- having sex with someone who has HCV
- getting a tattoo or body piercing at a facility with poor infection control practices
Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that the risk of getting HCV through sex increases in people who have many sexual partners, have a sexually transmitted disease, or partake in rough intercourse.
The National Institutes of Health advise that people cannot transmit HCV in the following ways:
- coughing or sneezing
- sharing food or water
- hugging, kissing, or holding hands
Several treatments can help people with both acute and chronic cases of HCV.
Some people will clear both types of HCV infection from their bodies without taking medications. For those with an acute HCV infection, this clearing can occur in 15–25 percent of people.
Treatment for HCV also reduces the risk of the HCV infection becoming chronic, however.
The available treatments of HCV may include the use of antiviral medications. These medicine choices depend on individual cases, the strain of HCV causing the infection, and the doctor’s recommendations.
Some people with an HCV infection may require a liver transplant and antiviral therapy to address the liver damage the disease causes.
Current HCV medications and combinations that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved include:
- ribavirin (CoPegus)
- daclatasvir (Daklinza)
- sofosbuvir and velpatasvir (Epclusa)
- ledipasvir and sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
- telaprevir (Incivek)
- interferon aphacon
- 1 (Infergen)
- interferon alpha-2b (Intron A)
- glecaprevir and pibrentasvir (Mavyret)
- simeprevir (Olysio)
- pegylated interferon (Pegasys)
- pegylated interferon alpha-2b (Pegintron)
- ribavirin (Rebetol)
- interferon alpha-2a (Roferon)
- sofosbuvir (Sovaldi)
- ombitasvir, paritaprevir, and ritonavir (Technivie)
- boceprevir (Victrelis)
- ombitasvir, paritaprevir, and ritonavir tablets in combination with dasabuvir tablets (Viekira Pak)
- elbasvir and grazoprevir (Zepatier)
A doctor and healthcare team will discuss the best method of treatment for every presentation of symptoms.
For extra information on each medication, people can visit the FDA website.
When to see a doctor
People should speak with a doctor if they suspect the following:
- They are at risk of contracting HCV.
- They need help with a substance use disorder that could expose them to HCV.
- They have recently undergone potential exposure to HCV.
- They are experiencing any symptoms of an HCV infection
Contracting HCV is preventable in many cases. Preventive measures include:
- not using illicit drugs, especially injectable substances
- taking care when undergoing body piercing or tattooing
- practicing sex with a condom
- not sharing personal items, such as razors or toothbrushes
- wearing gloves if you need to touch or handle another person’s blood
When getting a piercing or tattoo, people should seek out a place that has a good reputation. It is vital to ask about the hygiene and sterilization practices at the facility before agreeing to the procedure.
Is HCV the most dangerous type of hepatitis?
HCV infection is definitely a public health concern. According to the CDC, reports of acute HCV infection increased over 3-fold between the years 2010 and 2016. Almost 150,000 cases of chronic HCV were reported in 2016, compared to under 15,000 reported cases of chronic HBV or hepatitis B.
However, it is important to remember that chronic hepatitis infection can become very dangerous, regardless of the virus that is causing it.
When left untreated, chronic hepatitis can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening complications such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. That is why it is so important to see your doctor if you have symptoms of viral hepatitis or believe that you have been exposed.
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.