Do You Know Your Hepatitis C Risk?
What is hepatitis?
“Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Toxins, certain drugs, some diseases, heavy alcohol use, and bacterial and viral infections can all cause hepatitis. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viral infections that affect the liver; the most common types are Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. 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 virus infection is a long-term illness that occurs when the Hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body. Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.
Symptoms of hepatitis C
Hepatitis C often doesn’t have any noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. This means many people have the infection without realising it.
When symptoms do occur, they can be mistaken for another condition. Symptoms can include:
- flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches and a high temperature (fever)
- feeling tired all the time
- loss of appetite
- abdominal (tummy) pain
- feeling and being sick
The only way to know for certain if these symptoms are caused by hepatitis C.
How do you get hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact.
Some ways the infection can be spread include:
- sharing unsterilised needles – particularly needles used to inject recreational drugs
- sharing razors or toothbrushes
- from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby
- through unprotected sex – although this is very rare
In the UK, most hepatitis C infections occur in people who inject drugs or have injected them in the past. It’s estimated that around half of those who inject drugs have the infection.
Can a person have normal liver enzyme (e.g., ALT) results and still have Hepatitis C?
Yes. It is common for persons with chronic Hepatitis C to have a liver enzyme level that goes up and down, with periodic returns to normal or near normal. Some infected persons have liver enzyme levels that are normal for over a year even though they have chronic liver disease. If the liver enzyme level is normal, persons should have their enzyme level re-checked several times over a 6–12 month period. If the liver enzyme level remains normal, the doctor may check it less frequently, such as once a year.
Who should get tested for Hepatitis C?
Talk to your doctor about being tested for Hepatitis C if any of the following are true:
- You were born from 1945 through 1965
- 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 health care or public safety and were exposed to blood through a needlestick or other sharp object injury.
- You are infected with HIV.
Treatments for hepatitis C
Hepatitis C can be treated with a combination of medicines that stop the virus multiplying inside the body. These usually need to be taken for several months.
Most people will take two main medications called pegylated interferon (a weekly injection) and ribavirin (a capsule or tablet), although newer tablet-only treatments are likely to replace the interferon injections for most people in the near future.
These newer hepatitis C medications have been found to make treatment more effective. They include simeprevir, sofosbuvir and daclatasvir.
Using the latest medications, up to 90% or more of people with hepatitis C may be cured. However, it’s important to be aware that you won’t be immune to the infection and should take steps to reduce your risk of becoming infected again