What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a disease that affects the liver and is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis literally means “inflammation of the liver”. Other viruses, like hepatitis A or hepatitis B, can also cause diseases that affect the liver, but these are different from HCV.
How is Hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C virus is not easily spread, but it is passed through blood-to-blood contact. Sharing needles or other drug equipment, sharing personal care items like razors or toothbrushes, or having tattoos or piercings done with contaminated equipment can also spread hepatitis C. Prior to 1990, receiving blood or blood products for transfusions exposed some people. The virus may also have been transmitted during dental surgery or acupuncture, if the equipment was used without proper sterilization.
While the risk of sexual transmission is very low, the virus can be spread if open sores are present, or during a woman’s menstruation. Being infected with HIV or having rough anal or vaginal sex can increase your risk of acquiring or transmitting hepatitis C.
Babies can also become infected with the hepatitis C virus during pregnancy or at the time of birth.
How do I know if I have hepatitis C?
The only way to find out for sure is by having blood tests. Two blood tests are needed. The first test will look for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus, not the virus itself. Antibodies are substances produced by the body in response to infection and are found in the blood. A positive hepatitis C antibody test means that you have been infected with the hepatitis C virus at some point in your life, but the test cannot tell when this happened. The second test will check for the virus in your blood. If the virus is found in your blood it means you do have a hepatitis C infection and will need treatment.
After treatment, your blood will be tested again 12 weeks after you finish the treatment to make sure you have been cured of hepatitis C.
Who should be tested for hepatitis C?
- Anyone born between 1945 and 1975 should be screened by their doctor for hepatitis C
- People who had blood or blood product transfusions in Canada before 1990
- Anyone who has shared needles, spoons, or straws during drug use
- Anyone who has had tattooing, ear or body piercing done with shared or improperly cleaned needles
- Anyone who has shared personal items (e.g. razor or toothbrush) with someone diagnosed with hepatitis C
- People exposed to needle stick injuries (e.g health care workers)
- Hemodialysis patients
- Any household contact of someone diagnosed with hepatitis C
What are the signs and symptoms of hepatitis C infection/disease?
When some people are first infected with the hepatitis C virus, they often experience no symptoms at all and may feel quite well. Others may feel unusually tired and/or nauseated, and may develop jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), fever and muscle aches. These initial symptoms can last for two weeks to three months. About 25% of people initially infected will clear the virus on their own, and be symptom free.
Long term infection with the hepatitis C virus is known as chronic hepatitis C. This is usually a “silent” infection for many years, until the virus damages the liver enough to cause serious signs and symptoms of liver disease, also caused cirrhosis. Hepatitis C virus can also cause liver cancer and liver failure over time.
Signs and symptoms include:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Poor appetite
- Yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- Fluid buildup in your abdomen (ascites)
- Swelling in your legs
- Weight loss
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Spiderlike blood vessels on your skin (spider angiomas)
Is there treatment for Hepatitis C?
Yes. Hepatitis C treatments are highly effective and they cure over 95% of people with hepatitis C. There are six different strains of hepatitis C virus and they can all be cured. Treatment means taking pills, usually once per day for 8 to 12 weeks. Other tests, like liver scans or a biopsy may be done to determine how much the virus has damaged your liver over time. During and after treatment, it is important to take care of your health and your liver to reduce the stress caused by the infection, and prevent getting infected again.
- Avoid or limit alcohol. Alcoholic drinks can further damage your liver and make treatment less effective.
- Avoid or limit tobacco. Tobacco harms your lungs and is the leading cause of lung cancer. The same chemicals present in tobacco can also increase your chance of getting liver cancer.
- Eat healthy. Healthy eating gives your body and mind the fuel and nutrients they need to function well. Your liver processes everything you eat so eating healthy can help keep your liver healthy.
- Try to avoid illnesses and get immunized for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
- Avoid street drugs, as certain drugs such as marijuana may increase scarring of your liver. If you need help with the problems of alcohol or drug addiction speak to your doctor or contact:
- Drug and Alcohol Helpline (Ontario)
- Mental Health Helpline (Ontario)
- Community Addiction and Mental Health Services of Haldimand and Norfolk (CAMHS)
- Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)
- Reduce your stress by getting enough rest and sleep.
- Get moving! Being active helps control your weight, manage stress and increase your mood and sense of positivity.
- How does being cured help me?
- The hepatitis C virus can no longer injure your liver, and the health of your liver may improve over time. Treatment also prevents liver failure and lowers your chances of getting liver cancer. You cannot pass the hepatitis C virus to other people once cured.
Where can I get more help?
- Your family doctor or liver specialist (hepatologist)
- Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit Infectious Disease Team (519) 426-6170 or (905) 318 6623 www.hnhu.org
- Hepatitis Education Canada
- Canada’s Source for HIV and Hepatitis C Information – CATIE 1-800-263-1638 www.catie.ca