Hepatitis C
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Hepatitis C

(HCV)

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).

Hepatitis

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Causes

Hepatitis C virus is carried in the blood of people infected with the virus. It is primarily spread through contact with infected blood, such as:

  • Injecting illicit drugs with shared needles
  • Receiving HCV-infected blood transfusions (before 1992) or blood clotting products (before 1987)
  • Receiving an HCV-infected organ transplant
  • Receiving long-term kidney dialysis treatment (machine can be tainted with HCV-infected blood)
  • Sharing toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, or other personal hygiene items that have HCV-infected blood on them
  • Being accidentally stuck by an HCV-infected needle—a concern for healthcare workers
  • Frequent contact with HCV-infected people—a concern for healthcare workers
  • Receiving a tattoo, body piercing, or acupuncture with unsterilized or improperly sterilized equipment

Hepatitis C can also spread through:

  • An HCV-infected mother to her baby at the time of birth
  • Sexual contact with someone infected with HCV
  • Sharing a straw or inhalation tube when inhaling drugs with someone infected by HCV
  • Receiving a blood transfusion

HCV cannot spread through:

  • The air
  • Unbroken skin
  • Casual social contact
  • Breastfeeding

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

Risk factors include:

  • Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
  • Receiving blood clotting products before 1987
  • Long-term kidney dialysis treatment
  • Tattooing
  • Body piercing
  • Injecting illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
  • Having sex with partners who have hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted diseases

Symptoms

Eighty percent of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms. However, over time, the disease can cause serious liver damage.

Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
  • Darker colored urine
  • Light or chalky colored stools
  • Loose, light-colored stools
  • Abdominal pain
  • Aches and pains
  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Joint pain
  • Cigarette smokers may suddenly dislike the taste of cigarettes
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Chronic hepatitis C infection may cause some of the above symptoms, as well as:

  • Weakness
  • Severe fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Serious complications of hepatitis C infection include:

  • The possibility that the infection will become chronic, leading to cirrhosis (scarring) and progressive liver failure
  • Increased risk of liver cancer

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. You will also discuss your risk factors for hepatitis C.

Tests may include:

  • Blood tests—to look for hepatitis C antibodies or genetic material from the virus (antibodies are proteins that your body has made to fight the hepatitis C virus)
  • Liver function studies— to initially determine and follow how well your liver is functioning
  • Ultrasound of the liver— to assess liver damage
  • Liver biopsy—removal of a sample of liver tissue to be examined

Treatment

Hepatitis C is usually treated with combined therapy, consisting of :

  • Interferon—given by injection
  • Ribavirin—given orally

These medications can cause difficult side effects and have limited success rates. In unsuccessful cases, chronic hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis (scarring) and serious liver damage. At times a liver transplant may be needed.

Prevention

To prevent becoming infected with hepatitis C:

  • Do not inject illicit drugs, especially with shared needles. Seek help to stop using drugs.
  • Do not have sex with partners who have sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Practice safe sex (using latex condoms) or abstain from sex.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners.
  • Avoid sharing personal hygiene products, such as toothbrushes.
  • Avoid handling items that may be contaminated by HCV-infected blood.
  • Donate your own blood before elective surgery to be used if you need a blood transfusion.

To prevent spreading hepatitis C to others if you are infected:

  • Tell your dentist and physician before receiving check-ups or treatment.
  • Get both a hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccination.
  • Do not donate blood or organs for transplant.

RESOURCES:

American Liver Foundation
http://www.liverfoundation.org

Hepatitis Foundation International
http://www.hepfi.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Institute for Health Information
http://www.cihi.ca/cihiweb

Canadian Liver Foundation
http://www.liver.ca/Home.aspx

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ .

The Merck Manual of Medical Information . Simon and Schuster, Inc.; 2000.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ .



Last reviewed December 2007 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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