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Hepatitis C - A Serious Concern

If you just found out that you have hepatitis C, you’re likely worried. You may be wondering how it is going to affect your life. It may help to know that though chronic hepatitis C can be a serious health issue, it is not life-threatening for most people. You can take steps to help your body fight back. This section will help you learn more about this disease.

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammation or swelling of the liver that occurs when tissues of the liver become injured or infected. Inflammation can cause the liver to not work properly and, sometimes, can progress to other diseases. Hepatitis is usually caused by viral infection, though certain toxins, drugs, some diseases, excessive alcohol intake, and bacteria can also cause some forms of hepatitis. The five main types of hepatitis viruses are classified as A, B, C, D and E. Types B and C have led to chronic disease in millions of people and, together, are the most common causes of liver cirrhosis and cancer. Vaccines are available to prevent hepatitis B, but there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.

What is hepatitis C ?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection affecting the liver cells. It may present as a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that progressively damages the liver. Hepatitis C can be either 'acute' (short-term infection for less than 6 months) or 'chronic' (long-term infection).

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

Most people do not experience any symptoms until the hepatitis C virus causes liver damage, which usually takes 10 or more years to happen. Others may have one or more of the following symptoms: feeling tired, muscle soreness, upset stomach, fever, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, dark-yellow urine, light-colored stools, and yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice).

How does the hepatitis C virus get transmitted ?

Hepatitis C virus spreads primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. This contact could occur in various ways:

  • Through transfusion of infected blood or any other products obtained from blood (e.g. plasma, clotting factors, platelets)
  • Sharing drug needles or other drug materials with an infected person
  • Getting an accidental needle prick from needles that were used on an infected person
  • Having contact with blood or open bleeding cuts of an infected person
  • Having unprotected sex with an infected person
  • Getting tattooed or pierced with unsterilized tools that were used on an infected person
  • Using an infected person’s razor, toothbrush, etc.
  • Children being born to a mother having hepatitis C disease
  • Through contaminated equipment used in dialysis
  • Having undergone an organ transplant from an infected donor
How can hepatitis C be detected?

There are blood tests that will show if a person has hepatitis C. Some of the blood tests are done at a doctor’s clinic; some tests need the blood sample to be sent to a lab. The doctor may also advise tests or scans to examine the structure of the liver and assess the extent of liver damage.

People who are at higher risk of getting hepatitis C should get tested. Many people are unaware that they are infected with hepatitis C, as this disease does not show symptoms at an early stage in most patients.

What are the complications of a hepatitis C?

Chronic hepatitis C is a serious disease. If not diagnosed and treated in time, it can result in long-term health problems, such as permanent liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer, and even death.

Is there a vaccine to prevent hepatitis C?

Currently, there is no vaccine available to prevent this infection.

What are the treatment options available?

Hepatitis C is usually not treated unless it becomes chronic. Chronic hepatitis C is treated with medicines that slow or stop the virus from damaging the liver. Your doctor will take a decision on the treatment and appropriate management of the disease. He/she will also closely watch your symptoms and schedule regular blood tests to monitor the disease and ensure that the treatment is working.

Chronic hepatitis C is usually treated with a combination of interferons (injections) and ribavirin (an oral drug). Earlier, the treatment period used to be 24 to 48 weeks. However, today, newer oral treatments for chronic hepatitis C are being combined with interferon and ribavirin, which can cure the infection in 12 to 24 weeks. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about these treatments.

Can hepatitis C be cured?

The goal of treatment is to get rid of the hepatitis C virus in the body or achieve "sustained virological response (SVR)". SVR means that the hepatitis C virus is not found in the blood at 3 to 6 months after the patient stops taking his/her medicines. People who achieve SVR are generally considered to be 'cured'.

However, after a cure, if you get exposed to the hepatitis C virus again, you can get re-infected.

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