Dear Doctor

What is hepatitis C and why should I be tested?

Approximately 12,000 people die each year from hepatitis C related conditions, and yet, most people with the disease don’t even know they’re infected.

Hepatitis C is a liver disease, which can infect the body for up to 30 years before symptoms of liver damage are evident.

Since it often goes undiagnosed and untreated, many people with hepatitis C may develop life-threatening liver damage, cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 75 percent of the 3.2 million adults with hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965 – a rate five times higher in this age group than in any other group of adults.

The CDC also believes that many people were infected in the 1970s or 1980s when hepatitis C was most prevalent. One reason for this, was that widespread screening of the blood supply did not occur until 1992. Since hepatitis C can stay in the body for a long time without symptoms, it also could have been transferred through contact with an infected person’s blood, or by sharing an infected person’s razors, nail clippers or toothbrush, or through unprotected sex.

The CDC is asking people to take a simple blood test to see if they have hepatitis C. The disease can be successfully treated with medication.

For more information about taking a hepatitis C test, contact your primary care physician or contact to find a provider in your area.


The ABCDEs of Hepatitis

There are five strains of hepatitis viruses. All these viruses cause inflammation to the liver; some of the viruses are acute (short-term) and some are chronic (long term.)

The liver is a major organ in your body. You cannot live without your liver. It is responsible for removing toxins from your blood, helping you fight infection, and digest food. It is also stores nutrients, vitamins and energy.

When the hepatitis virus enters a person’s body, it may cause flu-like symptoms. Hepatitis A and E usually resolve on their own, though they may need to be treated with medication.

Hepatitis B and C may cause flu-like symptoms in the weeks or months after they have been contracted. In these instances, they are known as acute viruses. During the acute phase, 15 to 25 percent of people may clear the virus without treatment and without further damage to their livers.

However, the vast majority, 75 to 85 percent, will go on to develop a chronic infection that can cause liver disease, cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Hepatitis A

You can be infected with hepatitis A by eating food made by people who didn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom; drinking or cooking with untreated water; caring for someone with the virus, or having sex with someone who has the virus.

Anyone can contract hepatitis A. Young children may not have symptoms; adolescents and adults may experience mild, flu-like symptoms. Your body is usually able to fight off hepatitis A on its own with a lot of rest.

You can protect yourself from getting hepatitis A by getting a hepatitis A vaccination.

Hepatitis B and C

Hepatitis B and C are more serious than hepatitis A because they can turn into chronic hepatitis and cause severe damage to the liver. You can contract these viruses through contact with an infected person’s blood or other body fluids.

Hepatitis B is not contracted through contaminated water.

Symptoms of hepatitis B and C

The acute phase of hepatitis B and C develops within 3 months of exposure. If the virus does not clear itself from the body, it will become chronic and will require medical treatment. You may have hepatitis if you have any of the following symptoms.

  • yellowish eyes and skin, called jaundice
  • slow clotting when you bleed
  • swollen stomach or ankles
  • bruising easily
  • feeling tired
  • upset stomach
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhea
  • light-colored stools and dark yellow urine,

Both, hepatitis B and C can cause cirrhosis or scarring of the liver. Symptoms of cirrhosis are similar to hepatitis with the addition of nausea, weakness, weight loss and spider-like veins that appear on the skin.


How can I avoid getting hepatitis B and C?

You can protect yourself and others from hepatitis B by getting vaccinated. There currently is no vaccine for hepatitis C, so you should take the following precautions.

  • Do not share drug needles.
  • Wear gloves if you have to touch another person’s blood or open wound.
  • Use a condom when having sex.
  • Do not use another person’s toothbrush, razor, tweezers, nail clippers, or anything else that could have blood or body fluid on it.
  • Make sure any tattoos or body piercings are done with sterile tools.
  • Do not donate blood or blood products if you have or have had hepatitis.


What is chronic hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is chronic when the body does not clear the hepatitis C virus. Most hepatitis C infections become chronic. Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can cause scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure.

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D only develops if a person has already contracted Hepatitis B. Hepatitis D can be especially serious because the body is battling two hepatitis viruses at the same time.

Hepatitis E

Unlike the other strains, hepatitis E does not cause chronic illness or severe liver damage. However, the symptoms of a hepatitis E infection are similar to those for the other strains of hepatitis. Hepatitis E usually resolves on its own.

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