Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation, sometimes leading to serious liver damage. The hepatitis C virus (HCV) spreads through contaminated blood. Until recently, hepatitis C treatment required weekly injections and oral medications that many HCV-infected people couldn't take because of other health problems or unacceptable side effects. That's changing. Today, chronic HCV is usually curable with oral medications taken every day for two to six months. Still, about half of people with HCV don't know they're infected, mainly because they have no symptoms, which can take decades to appear. For that reason, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a one-time screening blood test for everyone at increased risk of the infection. The largest group at risk includes everyone born between 1945 and 1965 — a population five times more likely to be infected than those born in other years.
Long-term infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) is known as chronic hepatitis C. Chronic hepatitis C is usually a "silent" infection for many years, until the virus damages the liver enough to cause the signs and symptoms of liver disease. Among these signs and symptoms are:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Poor appetite
- Yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- Fluid buildup in your abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in your legs
- Weight loss
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Spider-like blood vessels on your skin (spider angiomas)
Your risk of hepatitis C infection is increased if you:
Are a health care worker who has been exposed to infected blood, which may happen if an infected needle pierces your skin
- Have ever injected or inhaled illicit drugs
- Have HIV
- Received a piercing or tattoo in an unclean environment using unsterile equipment
- Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Received hemodialysis treatments for a long period of time
- Were born to a woman with a hepatitis C infection
- Were ever in prison
- Were born between 1945 and 1965, the age group with the highest incidence of hepatitis C infection
Hepatitis C infection that continues over many years can cause significant complications, such as:
- Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). After 20 to 30 years of hepatitis C infection, cirrhosis may occur. Scarring in your liver makes it difficult for your liver to function.
- Liver cancer. A small number of people with hepatitis C infection may develop liver cancer.
- Liver failure. Advanced cirrhosis may cause your liver to stop functioning.
Health officials recommend that anyone at high risk of exposure to HCV get a blood test to screen for hepatitis C infection.
Doctors typically use one or more of the following tests to assess liver damage in chronic hepatitis C.
- Transient elastography. Another noninvasive test, transient elastography is a type of ultrasound that transmits vibrations into the liver and measures the speed of their dispersal through liver tissue to estimate its stiffness.
- Liver biopsy. Typically done using endoscopic ultrasound guidance, this test involves inserting a thin needle through the stomach wall under anesthesia to remove a small sample of liver tissue for laboratory testing.
Hepatitis C infection is treated with antiviral medications intended to clear the virus from your body. The goal of treatment is to have no hepatitis C virus detected in your body at least 12 weeks after you complete treatment.
If you think you are at risk of having hepatitis C, call your doctor who can test you very quickly with a simple blood test. If you have hepatitis C, call us at 978-459-6737or click here to request an appointment. We can talk to you about how to get rid of the virus and manage any damage you may have suffered as a result of infection.