The liver is a two-lobed organ found in the upper-right part of the torso. It is responsible for many functions and substances within the body, including:
- Immune factor
- Producing blood plasma protein
- Storing and releasing glucose
- Storing iron
- Converting ammonia to urea
- Controlling blood clotting
- Processing drugs and poisonous substances
- Removing bacteria from the blood
- Clearing bilirubin from the body
Hepatitis C (HCV) affects thousands of Americans each year, with nearly 3 to 4 million Americans currently infected.
Some of those with HCV experience only an acute illness, in which the illness is experienced within 6 months of exposure. However, 75-85 percent of those infected with progress to a chronic, potentially lifelong infection.
What is hepatitis C?
HCV is a tough virus in that it can live for up to 3 weeks on surfaces kept at room temperature. HCV is contagious and spread by blood transmission. Ways that HCV can spread include:
Hepatitis occurs when the liver becomes inflamed due to infection, disease, drugs, poisons, or excessive alcohol.
- Needle or syringe sharing
- Sharing of drug-related equipment used for drug injection
- Healthcare worker-related needle sticks
- Maternal-fetal transmission
- Sharing of razors or toothbrushes
- Having sex with someone who is HCV positive.
- Getting a tattoo or body piercing at a facility using poor infection control practices
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that the risk of getting HCV through sex is increased in those who have many sex partners, have a sexually transmitted disease or HIV, or partake in rough sexual activities
To be clear, the CDC report that while the disease is contagious, it is not spread through the following ways:
- Coughing or sneezing
- Food or water
- Hugging, kissing, or holding hands
Signs and symptoms of hepatitis C
HCV can spread through needle sharing.
HCV has two phases: acute and chronic. Symptoms vary depending on the phase of the viral infection. While most people with HCV show no symptoms, symptoms can occur as early as 2 weeks after exposure. They can last for up to 6 months.
Acute infections may go away on their own or following treatment with certain antiviral therapies. People with an acute infection may experience symptoms such as:
Many of those who progress to a chronic HCV infection will remain without symptoms. When symptoms are experienced, they may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Stomach pain
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored stool
- Joint pain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Skin itching
- Belly fluid
- Leg swelling
- Confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech
- Spider-like blood vessels in the skin
Other forms of hepatitis, including hepatitis A and B, may present with similar symptoms. If someone is experiencing any of the symptoms of hepatitis, they should speak with their doctor immediately. Testing can then be completed to determine the cause of the symptoms.
Complications of hepatitis C
Complications from an infection with chronic HCV can be serious and life-threatening and include:
Treatment for hepatitis C
Testing for HCV is important if a patient is experiencing any of the symptoms.
There are several treatments available for both acute and chronic cases of HCV. In both acute and chronic HCV infections, some people will naturally clear the virus without the use of medications. For those with an acute HCV infection, this clearing can occur in nearly 25 percent of people. The risk of chronic infection with HCV is reduced with treatment, however.
Treatment of HCV may include the use of antiviral medications. The medication used depends on the patient's situation and doctor's recommendations.
Some people with an HCV infection may require a liver transplant and antiviral therapy to address the liver damage caused by the disease.
Current HCV medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used alone or as combined therapy include:
- Ribavirin (CoPegus)
- Daclatasvir (Daklinza)
- Sofosbuvir and velpatasvir (Epclusa)
- Ledipasvir and sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
- Telaprevir (Incivek)
- Interferon aphacon-1 (Infergen)
- Interferon alpha-2b (Intron A)
- 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 packaged with dasabuvir tablets (Viekira Pak)
- Elbasvir and grazoprevir (Zepatier)
A doctor and healthcare team will discuss the best method of treatment in each particular case and situation. For additional information on each medication, people can look at the FDA website.
When to see a doctor
People should speak with a doctor if they think that they:
- Are at risk for contracting HCV
- Need help with a substance abuse problem
- Have been exposed to HCV
- Are experiencing any symptoms of an HCV infection
Preventing hepatitis C
Contracting HCV is preventable in many cases. Preventive measures include:
- Not using illicit drugs, especially injectable ones
- Taking care with body piercing and getting a tattoo
- Practicing safe sex
When getting a piercing or tattoo, people should seek out a facility that has a good reputation. It is important to ask about the hygiene and sterilization practices at the facility.