What is hepatitis C?

What is hepatitis C?

16 Feb 2023
Stefano Mirabello Medical Reviewer
Pharmacist / B.Pharm

According to the NHS, around 118,000 people in the UK had chronic Hepatitis C in 2019. Hepatitis C is a viral liver infection caused by the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) and can lead to serious health problems. It’s important to understand the basics of hepatitis C, including what it is, how it’s transmitted, and what treatments are available. Let’s break down the basics of this virus.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C often referred to as HCV, is a form of viral hepatitis that causes liver inflammation. It is primarily contracted through direct contact with contaminated blood but can also be passed from an infected mother to her foetus.

The virus enters cells in the body, replicating itself within the cell’s nucleus and releasing copies of itself into the bloodstream. This viral replication leads to inflammation in the liver. This process generally occurs without any noticeable symptoms. Still, it can result in chronic inflammation and if left untreated, it can increase your risk of developing liver failure, cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Acute Hepatitis C infection

Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness, typically occurring within weeks of exposure to the virus. The signs and symptoms associated with this type of infection can vary from individual to individual.

The onset of these symptoms most commonly occurs 8–14 weeks after exposure to the virus. Signs and symptoms are usually mild and can be hard to notice. However, some common signs and symptoms to look out for include flu-like symptoms, muscle aches, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), abdominal pain, especially in the area of your liver located on your right side underneath your rib cage, joint pain, dark-coloured urine and pale stools.

In around 1 in 4 people infected with Hepatitis C, the immune system will kill the virus within a few months. The person will have no further symptoms unless they become infected again. This stage is known as acute HCV infection.

In the remaining cases, the virus persists inside the body for many months or years. This is known as chronic hepatitis.

Chronic hepatitis C infection

If you have chronic HCV, the virus has been in your body for over six months. Some people with chronic hepatitis C never have any symptoms. For others, the most common symptom is fatigue. You might always feel tired, even if you’ve had a good night’s sleep. You might also have other symptoms, such as:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-coloured stools
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor so you can get treatment.

What are the causes of Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral liver infection caused by the Hepatitis C virus. You can become infected with it if you come into contact with an infected person’s blood. This can happen through sharing syringes, infected needles, syringes used in drug use, receiving a blood transfusion or blood products before 1992 (when most blood donors’ blood was tested for the virus), or even receiving an organ transplant from someone infected with hepatitis C.

Some examples of ways how blood can be transferred:

  • Sharing toothbrushes. When someone is infected with the virus, it can be present in the saliva, which can transfer to their toothbrush and yours if you share it
  • Sharing razors. The virus can remain in the blood on blades or sharp objects like needles. This means that if someone uses your razor and they have the virus, you have an increased chance of acquiring it yourself
  • Engaging in certain types of body modification, such as tattooing or body piercing. The virus can be transmitted through any non-sterile items used during the tattoo or piercing process; this includes needles, ink or jewellery that have been contaminated with infected blood
  • Unprotected sex. This applies to both heterosexual and especially anal sex without a condom. This virus is spread when body fluids like semen, pre-cum and vaginal secretions enter your system during unprotected sex

Tests for Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C testing can be done through blood tests that look for either antibodies or antigens of the virus.

An antibody test, also known as an immunoglobulin test, measures the presence of antibodies in your blood, while an antigen test measures the actual virus itself. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is recommended to confirm a positive result. After a positive PCR test, a genotype test is suggested to determine which strain of the virus you have.

In rare cases, your doctor may recommend a liver biopsy to measure damage and inflammation caused by the virus. It’s important to keep all follow-up appointments and discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor that might arise from these tests.

Hepatitis C Treatment

The treatment for Hepatitis C virus infection depends on the person’s health and lifestyle, as well as the strain of the contracted virus. Most individuals who have contracted Hepatitis C will require direct-acting antiviral medication to combat the virus. These medications work by interfering with the viral proteins essential for viral replication, stopping or slowing the virus’ growth rate.

Advancing technology has led to several medications proven to treat Hepatitis C. Two primary medications used effectively are ribavirin and sofosbuvir, which are often combined, or interferon for even better results. As with any treatment, these medications have potential side effects that vary from person to person. In rare cases, if hepatitis C leads to liver failure or liver cancer, you may need a liver transplant.

Additionally, for long-term management, individuals need to make positive changes to their lifestyles:

  • Eating a healthy diet can help improve your overall health and reduce strain on your liver. Consuming foods high in fibre, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, can also help manage the symptoms of Hepatitis C
  • Limiting or avoiding alcohol is important as it puts extra stress on the liver over time
  • Exercise, you should aim for about 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity like brisk walking or jogging
  • Activities that promote relaxation, such as yoga and meditation, may also benefit those with Hepatitis C

Taking the time to make positive changes can significantly improve your overall health and quality of life with this illness.

Complications of Hepatitis C

One of the most common complications that can occur with Hepatitis C, if untreated, is liver problems: liver damage, liver failure and even end-stage liver disease. Over time, hepatitis C can lead to irreversible liver scarring, known as cirrhosis, drastically reducing the liver’s ability to perform its vital functions and even leading to liver cancer in extreme cases. If you have cirrhosis, the scarred tissue in your liver gradually replaces healthy tissue and prevents the liver from working properly.

Unlike other types of hepatitis, such as Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C carries a higher risk of long-term complications that are serious and potentially life-threatening. Therefore, people who experience fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, dark urine, yellowing eyes or skin should immediately speak to their doctor to begin treatment.

Mental confusion due to decreased brain function can also occur in the late stages of the virus when not appropriately treated. It is important to identify any signs early so treatment can begin before symptoms become more serious.

Seek help

Hepatitis C can be a severe infection if left untreated, so it’s important to understand its symptoms and transmission methods. Fortunately, treatments can help you manage your infection and reduce your risk of long-term complications, like cirrhosis or cancer. Suppose you have any questions about your risk factors for developing hepatitis C. In that case, it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional for more information and advice to reduce your risk of infection and stay healthy.

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