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What Is Hepatitis C?

Types of liver disease, including fibrosis and cirrhosis, complications of hepatitis.
Article Details
  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 June 2014
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Hepatitis C is a contagious virus that causes damage to the liver. Yet this damage is usually not noticed at first and may accumulate silently for years. This condition is a challenging and chronic one under most circumstances, for which there is currently no definitive cure.

Contact with the blood of someone infected with the virus is the normal way hepatitis C is transmitted. This can occur in several ways. Up until 1992 in the US anyone who received a blood transplant was at some risk for the illness, though this is now unlikely due to screening procedures. Sharing needles with an infected person is another means of transmission, as are accidental needle sticks in healthcare settings that expose people to infected blood. Infants born to moms with hepatitis C are at risk for the illness, and sometimes, though rarely, the disease can be sexually transmitted.

As mentioned, hepatitis C may be asymptomatic for numerous years, but some people have a few symptoms similar to the flu when they first get the illness. These can include things like fatigue, reduced appetite, stomach tenderness, and aches and pains. Later on the same symptoms might repeat and be accompanied by fever and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).

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Though a few people who get hepatitis C fight the disease off without liver damage, some will develop cirrhosis or scarring of the liver that over time significantly impairs function. Even without cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis continues to damage the liver. This may ultimately lead to liver failure.

Treatment for hepatitis may vary on severity and expression of the disease, and also on genotype. There are actually six variants of the illness called genotype 1, 2, 3, etc. Not all doctors recommend treatment for all patients because some people will only suffer from slight liver damage that doesn’t significantly affect quality of life or its length. Other doctors argue that an aggressive approach may help forestall more damage and might help remove virus from the bloodstream so it can’t attack the liver.

General methods for treatment include a 24-48 week course of medications that may vary slightly. These can have many unpleasant side effects and they are not always effective. Doctors judge potential success of treatment by the genotype of hepatitis C a person has. When the illness has caused liver damage to the point of failure, this treatment is usually not the most effective. Instead, people may require a liver transplant, though this may only extend life by a few more years since the person still has the virus, and the new liver will be damaged by it.

The silent nature of hepatitis C is one of its biggest problems. All people need to be aware of the risk factors for getting this illness, and if they fall into a high-risk group, a simple blood test may identify its presence. Those falling into this group should seek doctor’s advice about getting tested.

People who have this illness won’t pass it to other family member by hugging or being close. They should work on making sure any potential source of blood doesn’t come into contact with the rest of the family. Things like used band-aids, sanitary pads and the like should be disposed of carefully. People should not share things that might involved blood contamination like toothbrushes. It is also generally advised that those infected use condoms during intercourse. People with the illness should always inform medical workers that they have it so these workers can take extra precautions and avoid exposure.

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