Hepatitis C (patient information)
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Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. The liver is a vital part of the body. If it does not work properly, it can cause serious illness. Viral hepatitis is the term used when the hepatitis is caused by a virus. There are several types of viral hepatitis including A, B, C, D and E; the most common types in the United States are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. All these viruses affect the liver but are spread in different ways. So the ways to prevent people from getting the virus are different too. Drinking alcohol or taking drugs (whether legal, illegal or prescription) can also cause a type of hepatitis. Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from a person infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with the hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.” Acute hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis C is a serious disease than can result in long-term health problems, or even death.
What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?
When first infected with the hepatitis C virus many people may not feel ill. Approximately 70%–80% of people with acute hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. Others may find their urine becomes dark and their eyes and their skin may turn yellow (jaundice) or they may experience a minor ‘flu-like’ illness. Other symptoms of acute hepatitis C include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored bowel movements
- Joint pain
- Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes)
These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks but this does not necessarily mean that the infection has also gone. If you have hepatitis symptoms, or think you have been put at risk, you should consult your doctor. A blood test can determine if you have hepatitis C. When a person has the virus for more than six months the illness is called chronic hepatitis C. Most people with chronic hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. However, if a person has been infected for many years, his or her liver may be damaged. In many cases, there are no symptoms of the disease until liver problems have developed. In persons without symptoms, hepatitis C is often detected during routine blood tests to measure liver function and liver enzyme (protein produced by the liver) level. The symptoms of chronic hepatitis C may be:
- mild to severe lethargy (tiredness),
- loss of appetite,
- nausea and vomiting,
- soreness in the upper right part of the belly (under the ribs),
- fever or flu-like symptoms, or
- pain in the joints.
In many cases people who have chronic hepatitis C may not feel ill. Even if a person with hepatitis C has no symptoms, he or she can still spread the virus to others.
What causes Hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus is present in the blood of an infected person. If infected blood enters another person’s blood stream, that person may get the virus. People can get hepatitis C by:
- sharing drug-injecting equipment such as needles, syringes and spoons.
- tattooing and body piercing using equipment that has not been properly cleaned and sterilised.
- sharing toothbrushes, razor blades or other similar personal items that could have small amounts of blood on them.
- one person’s blood coming into contact with open cuts on another person.
- needlestick injuries in the health care setting.
Mother to Baby
Mothers with hepatitis C may on rare occasions pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy, or at the time of birth. Breastfeeding is considered safe and only cracked or bleeding nipples may be a problem.
Sexual transmission rates of hepatitis C are very low, but the risk is increased with certain sexual practices or circumstances where there is the possibility of blood-to-blood contact (for example, sex during menstruation and rough sexual practices). The risk increases for those who have multiple sex partners, have a sexually transmitted disease, engage in rough sex, or are infected with HIV.
Who is at highest risk?
Some people are at increased risk for hepatitis C, including:
- Current injection drug users (currently the most common way hepatitis C virus is spread in the United States)
- Past injection drug users, including those who injected only one time or many years ago
- Recipients of donated blood, blood products, and organs (once a common means of transmission but now rare in the United States since blood screening became available in 1992)
- People who received a blood product for clotting problems made before 1987
- Hemodialysis patients or persons who spent many years on dialysis for kidney failure
- People who received body piercing or tattoos done with non-sterile instruments
- People with known exposures to the hepatitis C virus, such as
- Healthcare workers injured by needlesticks
- Recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the hepatitis C virus
- HIV-infected persons
- Children born to mothers infected with the hepatitis C virus
Less common risks include:
- Having sexual contact with a person who is infected with the hepatitis C virus
- Sharing personal care items, such as razors or toothbrushes, that may have come in contact with the blood of an infected person
When to seek urgent medical care?
Talk to your doctor about being tested for hepatitis C if any of the following are true:
- You are a current or former injection drug user, even if you injected only one time or many years ago.
- You were treated for a blood clotting problem before 1987.
- You received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.
- You are on long-term hemodialysis treatment.
- You have abnormal liver tests or liver disease.
- You work in healthcare or public safety and were exposed to blood through a needlestick or other sharp object injury.
- You are infected with HIV.
Having an antibody test tells you whether or not you have ever been infected with hepatitis C. This test does not tell you whether you still have the hepatitis C virus since antibodies will remain in the blood even if your body has cleared the virus. It may take two to three months (or sometimes longer) from the time of infection before a blood test can detect antibodies to hepatitis C. If you have a positive hepatitis C antibody test, specialized laboratories can do an additional test called hepatitis C PCR to determine if the virus is still present in your body.
What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?
Chronic hepatitis C is a serious disease that can result in long-term health problems, including liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer, or even death. It is the leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the United States. Approximately 8,000–10,000 people die every year from hepatitis C related liver disease. Of every 100 people infected with the hepatitis C virus, about:
- 75–85 people will develop chronic hepatitis C virus infection; of those,
- 60–70 people will go on to develop chronic liver disease
- 5–20 people will go on to develop cirrhosis over a period of 20–30 years
- 1–5 people will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer
Some people who have hepatitis C choose to make changes to their lives, such as reducing alcohol intake, maintaining a well balanced diet that is low in fat and considering overall health maintenance. You should also:
- consult your doctor who will monitor your condition and, if necessary, refer you to a specialist.
- consider being immunised against other hepatitis viruses for which there are vaccines (ie hepatitis A and hepatitis B).
- completely cover any cut or wound with a waterproof dressing.
If you have hepatitis C you should not:
- share injecting equipment,
- donate blood or body organs, or
- share personal items such as toothbrushes or razors.
Although there is no legal obligation to do so, you may wish to discuss your condition with your health care provider, eg doctor, dentist, naturopath, for optimal health care.
There is no medication available to treat acute hepatitis C infection. Doctors usually recommend rest, adequate nutrition, and fluids. People with chronic hepatitis C should be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease and evaluated for treatment. New combination treatment with the medicines pegylated interferon and ribavirin has greatly improved outcomes for people with chronic hepatitis C. These treatments can help decrease inflammation in the liver and can clear the virus in around 50 per cent of people. However, not every person with chronic hepatitis C needs or will benefit from treatment. In addition, the drugs may cause serious side effects in some patients. It is important to talk to your doctor and other support services about treatment options. Some people who have hepatitis C choose to use complementary therapies to manage the side effects of combination medicines. Approximately 15%–25% of people who get hepatitis C will clear the virus from their bodies without treatment and will not develop chronic infection.
It can lead to chronic hepatitis, liver failure and coma resulting from there
Diseases with Similar Symptoms
Where to find medical care for Hepatitis C?
At present there is no vaccine available to prevent a person from being infected with hepatitis C.
- Do not share personal items such as toothbrushes, razors, nail files or nail scissors, as these can puncture the skin and have small amounts of blood on them.
- If you are involved in body piercing, tattooing, electrolysis or acupuncture, always ensure that any instrument that pierces the skin is sterile.
- Health care workers are required to follow standard infection control guidelines.
- Wherever possible, wear single-use gloves if you give someone first aid or clean up blood or body fluids.
- You may wish to consider the benefits of safe sex practices (eg, using condoms and dams with lubricant) to protect you and your partner from a range of sexually transmissible infections, eg chlamydia. If blood is present during sex, the risk of spreading hepatitis C increases and safe sex practices may be advisable. Talk to your doctor if you are unsure.
For people who inject drugs:
- Always wash your hands before and after injecting.
- Never share needles and syringes. Never share other equipment such as spoons, swabs, filters, tourniquets and water as they can also be contaminated.
Cleaning and removal of blood spills:
- Wear single-use gloves and use paper towels to mop up the blood spill and dispose of used paper towels in a plastic bag.
- Wash area with warm water and detergent, rinse and dry.
- Place used gloves into a plastic bag, then seal and dispose of the plastic bag in a rubbish bin.
- Wash hands in warm soapy water and dry thoroughly.