What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver. The liver becomes inflamed.
How Does Hepatitis C Occur?
Hepatitis C is caused by the Hepatitis C virus. The virus is spread mainly through contact with infected blood. Sometimes it is spread through sexual contact. You can get it from:
- Receiving infected blood, blood products, or transplanted organs
- Long-term kidney dialysis if you unknowingly shared supplies or equipment that had someone else's blood on them
- Contact with infected blood on the job if you are a health care worker, especially from accidental needlesticks
- Your mother if she had Hepatitis C at the time she gave birth to you
- Intravenous (IV) drug abuse
- Sharing nasal cocaine equipment with other people
- Sharing razors or toothbrushes with an infected person
- Getting a permanent tattoo with unsterile equipment
- Having unprotected sex with someone infected with Hepatitis C
Before 1990 one of the most common ways to get Hepatitis C was blood transfusion. However, now blood donors are screened for the virus.
The disease can be spread by people who do not have any symptoms and may not know they carry the virus. These people are called asymptomatic carriers.
What are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?
You may not have any symptoms of Hepatitis until several weeks or months after you are infected with the virus. Or you may never have any obvious symptoms.
If you are one of the few people who have symptoms, the illness usually begins with these flulike symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- General aching
Other early symptoms may include:
- Itching with or without hives
- Painful joints
- A loss of taste for cigarettes if you are a smoker
Some people develop a chronic form of the disease without ever having had any obvious symptoms. Liver damage can occur slowly without symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms of chronic Hepatitis C do begin, they are often persistent fatigue, weakness, and loss of appetite, as well as some of the other symptoms listed above.
How is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?
Your health care provider will ask about your medical history and symptoms. Especially important is your history of Hepatitis risk factors such as IV drug abuse.
Your health care provider will examine your skin and eyes for signs of Hepatitis. Your provider will check your abdomen to see if the liver is enlarged or tender. You may have blood tests to see if your liver is inflamed and if you are infected with the Hepatitis C virus.
If your health care provider thinks you may have chronic Hepatitis or serious liver damage, or if the diagnosis is uncertain, you may have a liver biopsy. A biopsy is a procedure in which a needle is used to remove a small amount of tissue. This is done through the skin over the liver after the area is numbed with an anesthetic. The sample of tissue is sent to a lab for tests to check for damage to your liver.