Hepatitis is inflammation or swelling of the liver. Hepatitis C is a specific disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis C is a contagious disease, which means it can be spread from person to person.
The Hepatitis C virus causes damage when it attacks the liver. The liver is an important organ located in the abdomen. It breaks down waste products in the blood, helps digest food, fights infection, and stores nutrients, vitamins, and energy.
If the liver is inflamed, it cannot function correctly and waste products can build up in the blood. The inflammation caused by hepatitis C can cause scarring on the liver tissue known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure, which can be fatal.
Anyone can become infected with hepatitis C. HCV is only transferred through contact with infected blood. Prior to 1992, anyone who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant was at risk for Hepatitis C because donor blood was not tested for the virus. Since 1992, blood and tissue donations in the United States have been screened for the virus.
Some ways people become infected with HCV include:
• Having a blood transfusion or being an organ transplant recipient prior to 1992
• Being born to a woman who has hepatitis C
• Sharing a drug injections needle that was used by an infected person
• Having sex with an infected person
• Using an infected person’s razor, toothbrush, or other item that could come in contact with blood
• Getting a tattoo or piercing if the tools were used on an infected person and were not properly sterilized
Healthcare workers and others are also at risk from an accidental needle stick if the needle was used on an infected person.
Hepatitis C may be acute, which means the liver may suddenly becomes inflamed. Some people recover from an acute inflammation within a few days or weeks. However, acute hepatitis C often leads to chronic or long-term hepatitis C, which becomes a life-long disease with potentially serious health consequences.
Most people do not initially have any symptoms when they contract hepatitis C. When they develop, initial symptoms are often flu-like including nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, aches, and fever. Other symptoms of HCV include:
• Yellow color in the skin or the eyes (jaundice)
• Extra time for bleeding to stop
• Swollen stomach or ankles
• Light-colored stools
• Dark yellow urine
Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine to help protect against the hepatitis C virus. There is no proven cure for hepatitis C, but studies show that between 45 and 75 percent of people who are treated may experience no further symptoms of HCV after 6 months to a year of treatment.
If you believe you could have been exposed to hepatitis C, talk to your healthcare provider right away. Early treatment can help prevent long-term damage to your liver.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heptatitis B Information for the Public. Web. September 5, 2011.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). What I need to know about Hepatitis C. Web. September 5, 2011.
Family Doctor.org. Hepatitis C. Web. September 5, 2011.
Reviewed September 6, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith