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Hepatitis C (hep C) is a viral infection. Initially, a person will have an acute infection. If the infection is going to manifest, it will generally do so within the first six months since exposure. In many acute cases, doctors will not treat the infection because it may go away on its own. This is known as spontaneous viral clearance. While some research shows that antiviral treatments can avoid chronic hep C, it remains uncertain, and the treatments are very expensive.

When an infection develops into chronic hep C, a doctor will treat it with a direct-acting antiviral (DAA). DAAs are effective in more than 90% of all cases, and another 5% of cases are treatable through other medications. The danger with hep C is that it often begins and progresses with no symptoms or other signs. A person can develop chronic liver disease without knowing it, even over several decades. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the risk factors. If you were in a situation where you may have contracted hep C, for instance, you can seek testing, and then, if necessary, treatment to avoid this oft-silent damage.

What Is Hepatitis?

The word hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. When liver inflammation occurs, function is diminished, and this degradation worsens as the inflammation does. Hepatitis is not purely a contracted disease. Heavy alcohol use can cause it. Certain toxins and even some medications can cause it as well. A person can even develop it through other medical conditions.

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hep C is a virus that causes hepatitis liver infection. It can range from a short-term and mild illness to a long-term and severe disease. If hep C is left untreated or is not curable, it can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver, liver cancer, and, potentially, death. It remains the most common reason that liver transplants occur in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are more than 10,000 hep-c-related deaths in the U.S. each year.

What Is the Difference Between Hepatitis A, B and C

Hep A, B, and C are all distinct viruses that cause hepatitis. While they do tend to cause similar symptoms, if they cause any at all, they spread in different ways and often affect the liver in different ways. Hep A is almost exclusively a short-term infection. Hep B is similar to hep C in that it begins as a short-term infection but often develops into a long-term infection. Hep A and Hep B are also notable in that there are vaccines that will prevent infection from those viruses. There is no vaccine for hep C.

Who Is at Risk of Hepatitis C?

The hep C virus spreads predominantly via contact with blood and blood-related equipment and products. Nevertheless, there have been cases of people who get hep C without contact with blood and without any of the known risk factors involved. That said, there is no genetic evidence that some people may be more predisposed to getting the virus than others. In fact, studies have shown that a high degree of genetic variability is a key characteristic of the success of the virus. While one may not be predisposed to hep C, there are a range of activities and circumstances that put a person at much greater risk of contracting the virus.

Mothers With Hepatitis C

Pregnant mothers with hep C can pass the disease to their babies, but it is important to note that it does not occur at a high rate. Approximately 5% of babies born to mothers with hep C will contract the infection. There are also other risk factors that increase that percentage. The most notable are hep B and human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV). If a mother has HIV and/or Hep B, then the chance of passing the infection on to the baby increases to between 10% and 15%.

Spouses or Partners With Hepatitis C

You are at greater risk of contracting hep C if your spouse or partner has it, but modern research suggests that if you are in a monogamous relationship, your risk of getting the virus is actually quite low. The CDC does not even recommend routine condom use for the purposes of protecting oneself from the infection. The CDC recommends not sharing toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, and similar personal items. HIV is an additional risk factor. If the spouse or partner does have hep C and HIV, then the CDC recommends regular condom use and speaking to your healthcare professional about other precautions that you can take.

Provide Care for Someone With Hepatitis C

A person is also at greater risk if they provide care for someone with the virus. This includes caregivers in a professional capacity but also family members and friends simply helping out. Just being in daily close contact with an infected person puts you at additional risk. How much risk depends on the nature of the caregiving. If the caregiver provides medication to the affected person via needles, then the risk is significantly higher. In most cases, the risk is very low. Furthermore, the caregiver who is aware and takes precautions can limit their risk to a virtually insignificant level.

Work Around Blood or Needles

Anyone who works around blood and needles is at elevated risk of contracting the virus. This is a particularly heightened risk for medical lab doctors, nurses, and personnel. Modern needle usage and needle prick protocols are refined and have made the incident rate very low in hospitals, clinics, labs, and so on. In cases where a needle prick incident does occur, modern research estimates the rate of infection to be between 2% and 10%. That is lower than the rate for similar incidents involving hep B but higher for those involving HIV.

Risky Sex Life

If you have multiple partners or have a spouse that has multiple partners, then your risk is much higher. This risk is not limited to hep C and extends to all sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The risk factor is even higher if your partners or your partner’s partners have HIV. Note that if HIV is not involved, the transmission of hep C through sex alone is rare. In this scenario, the CDC recommends that you use condoms, dams, and gloves when you or your partner has cuts or lesions near the genitals.

Had a Blood Transfusion Prior to 1992

Widespread screening in the U.S. for hep C was implemented in 1992. This is why the CDC and other health organizations recommend hep C testing if you had a blood transfusion prior to 1992. Before 1992, blood transfusions were the primary way we spread hep C in the U.S. After screening protocols were in place, transfusion-related cases of hep C virtually disappeared. The CDC also advises testing if you received an organ transplant prior to 1992 or if you ever received clotting factor concentrates that were made prior to 1987. Clotting factor concentrates are used as a treatment for people with hemophilia.

Are on Dialysis

Note that a person is not at direct risk of hep C simply because they undergo kidney dialysis. Dialysis is a machined-aided treatment that removes waste products and extra fluids that your kidneys cannot. The risk with the treatment is that it may expose you to equipment or supplies that were not cleaned properly or were reused rather than discarded as they should have been. According to the American Kidney Fund (AKF), the risk is not high due to the protections in place at modern dialysis centers. Despite that, the AKF does recommend hep C testing before you start dialysis treatment and ongoing testing biannually or at least once a year.

Use Needles for Drug Use

People who use needles to take drugs are particularly susceptible to hep C. In fact, once blood transfusion-related cases were virtually eliminated, drug-involved needle use became the most common way to transmit the infection. Some research suggests that as many as 80% of new users get the disease within six to 12 months of beginning the drug use. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, new cases of hep C have been on a sharp rise since 2009, and the increase has largely been caused by people becoming addicted to prescription opioids and later transitioning to intravenous opioid use.

Snort Cocaine

It is important to note that risk factors associated with drug use are not limited to substances taken with needles. Cocaine is an example. The rate of cases of hep C in cocaine users is higher than in the general population. This is because some cocaine users snort the drug through the use of straws. These straws are often shared among two or more people snorting the cocaine. It is very easy to prick the interior of the nose and draw blood. If that occurs to a person with hep C, then there is a significant chance that they will transmit the virus to the other users in the group.

Tattoos or Body Piercings

People who get body piercings and tattoos are at greater risk of hep C due to the equipment and supplies the artists use to achieve body art. The good news is that such cases in the U.S. are now quite rare. This is largely due to greater awareness and tattoo and piercing shops taking greater precautions to protect their customers and employees. Still, it is important that you only go to a shop that you trust to sterilize their tools, discard used materials, and take other precautions.

Been in Jail or Prison

There have traditionally been very high rates of hep C in the U.S. prison system at the federal level and in most, if not all, states. This is because the people are in close proximity and often share personal items with each other, including items hidden from guards and thus kept in unsanitary conditions. The spread of hep C among prisoners happens via sex, but such transmission is actually as uncommon as it is among the general population. Many of the cases are believed to involve weapons, toothbrushes, tattoo and piercing equipment, and so forth. Despite having hepatitis testing and treatment in most prisons and taking other measures to prevent spread, 25% of people in prison or jail have the disease.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

Acute hep C rarely has symptoms. When there are symptoms in this phase, it is easy to attribute them to other issues. Common examples include muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, fever, and jaundice. Chronic hep C can go many years and even decades before it begins to show symptoms. These can be the symptoms listed for acute hep C in addition to:

  • Ascites
  • Itchy skin
  • Angiomas
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Swelling of the legs
  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • Easily bleeding and bruising

Jaundice is yellowing of the skin. Hepatic encephalopathy is a condition that causes confusion, slurred speech and drowsiness. Ascites involves the buildup of fluid in the stomach area, and angiomas causes spiderlike blood vessels on the skin.

Learn More About Comprehensive Care for Hepatitis C

At LifeLine Health, we specialize in comprehensive primary care for hepatitis C, HIV, and all types of STDs. That care includes both prevention and treatment, and we also connect our clients to specialized support services and other resources. Our mission is to be a welcoming and supportive medical home where you can get the one-stop medical care you need regardless of your social status, financial status, cultural background, or sexual orientation. Through our team, you will receive exceptional care and attention. Call us today or contact us online so that we can speak privately to discuss your concerns and get you the care you need.

Listen To What Our Patients Say…

Cristina Anderson

I am thankful to the nice people at Lifeline Health. I was so scared when I found out I had been exposed. They guided me and made me feel so at ease. I have not had an issues and I know it's because I went to Lifeline Health first.

Juan Bustamonte

Thankfully there are places like Lifeline Health to get tested. This place is lowering the risk for our community by educating us and providing the resources to stay healthy. They are making positive changes in the community.

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