Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is one of the most common types of hepatitis. Many people with hepatitis C remain undiagnosed. People can have the illness for years, or even decades, and not know it because they don’t have symptoms.
According to Jeffrey Weinstein, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at Kettering Medical Center, a hepatitis C infection may last a few weeks before the body is able to fight it off. However, Dr. Weinstein says, in 75 percent of people with acute hepatitis, the illness becomes chronic where the virus remains in the body and can last a lifetime. If left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to problems such as cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.
A screening test can tell you if you have hepatitis C. Before widespread screening began in 1992, many people became infected through blood transfusions or organ transplants. Now, most people become infected by sharing needles when injecting intravenous drugs.
Less commonly, the virus can spread through accidental needle sticks, sexual contact and sharing personal items that have come into contact with blood, such as razors or toothbrushes. Hepatitis C-infected mothers can infect their babies during the birthing process.
Hepatitis C can exist in the body for years without any symptoms, so it’s important to get screened. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults in the United States get tested at least once, but it is especially important for people who are most at risk for hepatitis C. People are most at risk if they:
- Were born between 1945 and 1965. People in this age group are five times more likely to be infected due to the lack of widespread blood screenings.
- Have ever injected drugs, even once many years ago.
- Have HIV.
- Were treated for a blood clotting problem before 1987.
- Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.
- Are on long-term kidney dialysis.
- Work in health care or public safety and have been stuck with a needle or other sharp object that exposed them to blood.
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fever, fatigue, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, dark urine, clay-colored bowel movements, joint pain and yellowing of the skin or eyes. If you are experiencing these symptoms, seek medical attention.
Hepatitis C is a major cause of liver cancer and the number one cause of liver transplants, but in some cases, it can be cured with medication, so it’s important to see a doctor if you think you may need testing. Treatments have ensured that the disease is almost 100 percent curable.
“If you have not been exposed to hepatitis C, prevention is key as there is no vaccine that can be used to protect individuals,” notes Dr. Weinstein.
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