Although it wasn't discovered until 1989, approximately 170 million people are currently infected with hepatitis C. It is a DNA virus primarily transmitted through bodily fluids and can be diagnosed by taking a blood or serum sample.
The hepatitis C virus affects the liver by triggering the release of infection-fighting antibodies which cause swelling and inflammation. Over the course of time, gradual liver damage may lead to failure of the organ and the need for a transplant. The chance of liver failure mostly depends on whether an individual has acute (self-limiting) or chronic (long-standing) hepatitis C.
The symptoms of the disease will begin to appear within the first six months of infection. These include pale stools, ascites, bleeding varices, fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, muscle and joint pain, and jaundice. For some reason, itchy skin has also been correlated with hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C can be spread from mother to baby but cannot be spread through casual contact such as kissing, sharing cups, or breastfeeding. Those infected with acute hepatitis C will spontaneously be rid of the disease within the first six months, usually two to three weeks after the first symptoms appear.
Unfortunately, the majority of hepatitis C cases are chronic. Those infected with a chronic case may not experience ongoing symptoms but always have the ability to transmit the disease to others. These individuals are usually prescribed an aggressive treatment plan of weekly injections and daily pills. Anywhere from 24 to 48 weeks of treatment can slow the progress of the disease considerably.
Hepatitis C sufferers are at a higher risk for developing a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma. Even after undergoing a liver transplant, those with hepatitis C will still experience the effects of the disease.
There is currently no cure or vaccine for hepatitis C. It causes around 10,000 deaths a year in the U.S., with 35,000 to 185,000 new cases picked up yearly. Sexual transmission of the disease is unlikely between monogamous partners; as the number of partners goes up, risk continues to increase.
Hepatitis C is most commonly spread through shared needles, either with drug use or at tattoo parlors. Health care workers should be especially careful when handling blood and other body fluids. Except in infant cases, the disease is totally preventable through many of the same lifestyle choices as those recommended for HIV prevention.