The word "hepatitis" is written on a chalkboard
Hepatitis C is one of the three most common forms of viral hepatitis.

Everything You Need to Know About Hepatitis C

Your liver is awesome. It helps detoxify substances in the body, cleans your blood, and makes essential nutrients. Hopefully, you don’t take these actions for granted, because if Hepatitis C finds its way into your body, your hard-working liver might be in trouble.

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is one of the three most common forms of viral hepatitis. Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) attacks the liver, causing inflammation and damage.

Hepatitis C is common worldwide; right now, there are approximately 170 million people infected with HCV. Hepatitis C begins as an acute infection but can remain in the body and cause long-term damage.

The virus escapes your body’s defenses because it changes, so your antibodies aren’t able to launch an efficient attack.

What Causes Hepatitis C?

HCV is spread through blood-to-blood contact, which means infected blood manages to find its way into your bloodstream. The infection can be spread in various ways which include:

  • Using injectable drugs and sharing needles, syringes, or other injectable equipment.
  • Being born by a mother who has HCV.
  • Tattoos and piercings administered without proper sterilization.
  • Pedicures/manicures done with contaminated tools.
  • Medical procedures with medical equipment that is not properly sterilized.
  • Having a blood transfusion or received blood before July 1990.
  • Less common ways of contracting HCV are sharing personal hygiene items with an infected person (razors, nail clippers, toothbrush, etc.), and having sexual contact with a person infected with Hepatitis C.

Do You Always Get Symptoms When You’re Infected?

Your body’s immune system makes antibodies to HCV, but they do not protect you.

Hepatitis C affects everyone differently; some folks don’t seem affected, others experience a slow onset, and some are affected quickly with severe symptoms. Symptoms don’t often appear until the liver is quite damaged.

Abnormal blood tests are usually the only indicator of infection. You may not show any symptoms which can make you think you’re not infected.

Always seek a professional diagnosis as confirmation of HCV requires medical testing. There are four major phases of Hepatitis C: acute, chronic, cirrhosis and failure, each with their symptoms.

Acute Phase Symptoms

The acute infection phase about two months and symptoms are usually mild. Acute symptoms are similar to a Hepatitis B infection. Generally, there are no symptoms, but some people may experience an illness resembling flu, fatigue, loss of appetite, and muscular aches and pain.

About ten percent of those infected at this stage become jaundiced (the skin becomes visibly yellow). Acute symptoms typically resolve, and the patient may be without symptoms of liver disease for years afterward.

Chronic Phase Symptoms

Hepatitis C becomes a chronic virus if it lasts longer than six months. Chronic hepatitis builds off the acute symptoms.

Symptoms in this phase also include enhanced fatigue, skin problems, depression, sleep disturbances, eye problems, urinary tract infections, kidney infections, strange odor or color of urine, fever, vulnerability to illness and infection, weight gain, water retention, various autoimmune disorders, and more.

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Cirrhosis Phase Symptoms

Cirrhosis will have all the symptoms of chronic hepatitis, but also includes signs of icterus (yellow eyes), dark brown urine, abdominal fluid accumulation, becoming easily bruised, bleeding into the stomach, bleeding into the esophagus or coughing up blood, bloody stool, swollen spleen, and severe itching.

Failure Phase Symptoms

This is also referred to as the de-compensation phase. This stage has amplified symptoms of the cirrhosis stage but can also include liver cancer, kidney failure, life-threatening bleeding from the oral or rectal cavity, and a severely swollen abdomen.

Conditions Caused by Hepatitis C

If the body is unable to fight off the virus, it can lead to chronic hepatitis, which can lead to cirrhosis of the liver. This late-stage occurs when the scarring of your liver gets in the way of proper liver function.

Hepatitis C can cause death by liver failure or liver cancer, but for most, it’s a slow killer. The progression can range from 20 to more than 40 years before the damage leads to death.

HCV can trigger a variety of autoimmune disorders which include diabetes, kidney disease, chronic heart disease, retinal complications and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Treatment of Hepatitis C

In about 25 percent of infected people, the virus can disappear on its own. Acute hepatitis is treated with the same medication used to treat Chronic Hepatitis C. To determine if you have Hepatitis C, you need to get a blood test. The test will look for HCV antibodies.

Do not self-medicate if you have HCV; check with your doctor before taking any pills, supplements, or over-the-counter medications as they can also contribute to liver damage. A specialist will help you determine which drug therapy is best suited to your case. This depends largely on the severity of the liver disease, virus genotype and whether you’ve been through treatment before.

Therapies called Direct Acting Antivirals (DAAs) are pills that attack the virus itself rather than coax an immune response from the body. These new treatments achieve cure rates upwards of 90 percent. Treatment duration lasts between 8 to 24 weeks and appears to be effective at all stages of the disease.

Unfortunately, a vaccine is not yet available, and no alternative therapies (herbal remedies, homeopathic medicine, etc.) have proven to be a safe and effective treatment for HCV.

How to Avoid Contracting Hepatitis C

  • Practice safe sex.
  • Do not share personal hygiene products.
  • Do not share needles.
  • Practice due diligence before getting a tattoo, piercing, or nail service. Make sure the facility uses single-use needles and adheres to proper sterilization procedures.

Be mindful of what causes Hepatitis C and try not to put yourself in a position that compromises your liver health. HCV can cause some serious damage—do what you can to avoid it.