Hepatitis C is a viral disease that leads to swelling (inflammation) of the liver.
Non-A or non-B hepatitis
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Hepatitis C infection is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). People who may be at risk for hepatitis C are those who:
- Have been on long-term kidney dialysis
- Have regular contact with blood at work (for instance, as a health care worker)
- Have unprotected sexual contact with a person who has hepatitis C (this is less common, but the risk increases for those who have multiple sex partners, already have a sexually transmitted disease, or are infected with HIV)
- Inject street drugs or share a needle with someone who has hepatitis C
- Received a blood transfusion before July 1992
- Received a tattoo or acupuncture with contaminated instruments (the risk is very low with licensed, commercial tattoo facilities)
- Received blood, blood products, or solid organs from a donor who has hepatitis C
- Share personal items such as toothbrushes and razors with someone who has hepatitis C (less common)
- Were born to a hepatitis C-infected mother (this is less common than with hepatitis B)
Hepatitis C has an acute and chronic form. Most people who are infected with the virus develop chronic hepatitis C.
Other hepatitis virus infections include hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Each viral hepatitis infection is caused by a different virus.
Many people who are infected with hepatitis C do not have symptoms.
If the infection has been present for many years, the liver may be permanently scarred, a condition called cirrhosis. In many cases, there may be no symptoms of the disease until cirrhosis has developed.
The following symptoms could occur with hepatitis C infection:
Signs and tests
The following tests are done to help diagnose hepatitis C:
- ELISA assay to detect hepatitis C antibody
- Hepatitis C genotype. Six genotypes exist. Most Americans have genotype 1 infection, which is the most difficult to treat.
- Hepatitis C RNA assays to determine virus levels (called viral load)
The following tests are done to identify and monitor liver damage from hepatitis C:
Liver biopsy can show how much damage has been done to the liver.
There is no cure for hepatitis C, but medications in some cases can suppress the virus for a long period of time.
Some patients with hepatitis C benefit from treatment with medications. The most common medications are a combination of interferon alpha and ribavirin, an antiviral medication.
- Most patients receive weekly injections just under the skin with a form called pegylated interferon alpha.
- Ribavirin is a capsule taken twice daily. The major side effect is low red blood cells (anemia). Ribavirin also causes birth defects. Women should avoid getting pregnant during, and for 6 months after, treatment.
- Treatment is given for 24 - 48 weeks.
These medications have a number of side effects, including:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Loss of appetite
- Low white blood cell counts and platelets
- Thinning of hair
See: Cirrhosis for information about treating more severe liver damage caused by hepatitis C.
Patients who develop cirrhosis or liver cancer may be candidates for a liver transplant.
People with hepatitis C should also:
- Be careful not to take vitamins, nutritional supplements, or new over-the-counter medications without first discussing it with their health care provider.
- Avoid any substances that are toxic to the liver (hepatotoxic), including alcohol. Even moderate amounts of alcohol speed up the progression of hepatitis C, and alcohol reduces the effectiveness of treatment.
- Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.
You can often ease the stress of illness by joining a support group of people who share common experiences and problems. See liver disease - resources.
Most people with hepatitis C infection have the chronic form.
In people who are treated with medications, a "sustained response" means that the patient is free from the hepatitis C virus 6 months after stopping treatment. This does not mean that the patient is cured, but that the levels of active hepatitis C virus in the body are very low and are probably not causing more, or as much damage.
Patients with genotypes 2 or 3 are three times more likely to respond to treatment than patients with genotype 1.
Hepatitis C is one of the most common causes of chronic liver disease in the United States today. People with this condition may have:
Hepatitis C usually comes back after a liver transplant, which can lead to cirrhosis of the new liver.
Calling your health care provider
Call your provider if:
- You develop symptoms of hepatitis
- You believe you have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus
Avoid contact with blood or blood products whenever possible. Health care workers should follow precautions when handling blood and bodily fluids.
Do not inject illicit drugs, and especially do not share needles with anyone. Be careful when getting tattoos and body piercings.
Sexual transmission is low among stable, monogamous couples. A partner should be screened for hepatitis C. If the partner is negative, the current recommendations are to make no changes in sexual practices.
People who have sex outside of a monogamous relationship should practice safer sex behaviors to avoid hepatitis C as well as sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and hepatitis B.
Currently there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Ghany MG, Strader DB, Thomas DL, Seeff LB. American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. Diagnosis, management, and treatment of hepatitis C: an update. Hepatology. 2009;49:1335-1374.
Jou JH, Muir AJ. In the clinic. Hepatitis C. Ann Intern Med. 2008;148:ITC6-1-ITC6-16.
George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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