Hepatitis C

What is Hepatitis C?

Inflammation of the liver caused by infection with HCV is referred to as Hepatitis C. It was first identified in 1989. Hepatitis C is spread by direct contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C differs from Hepatitis A, which is spread through eating or drinking contaminated food or water and Hepatitis B, which can be spread through blood contact with any body fluid of an infected person.

What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?

Although Hepatitis C damages the liver, most people with the disease do not have symptoms and appear quite healthy. In those who do, symptoms may not appear for 10-20 years, or even longer. Even then, the symptoms usually come and depart, besides being mild and vague.

A minority of people have symptoms such as fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), abdominal and joint pain, nausea and loss of appetite. The symptoms may take a few weeks or months to clear up.

How is the Hepatitis C virus transmitted?

The most common means of transmission is through injection drug use, even if the drug use was several years ago or happened only once. Sharing contaminated needles or any drug-related equipment is enough to spread Hepatitis C. Another way of getting Hepatitis C is through a blood transfusion from a donor who has Hepatitis C – especially for those people who received a blood transfusion prior to 1990. Thankfully, the risk of getting HCV in this way has dropped to extremely low levels because of the mandatory universal testing of all blood donors.

Activities such as tattooing and body piercing, which may be performed with unsterilized tools or sharing toothbrushes, sharing nail clippers and razors with an infected person can also spread the Hepatitis C virus. The risk of getting HCV infection by living with, being near or touching someone in the course of ordinary household or workplace interactions is extremely low.

Is it possible to get Hepatitis C from having unprotected sexual intercourse?

The rate of transmission by sexual contact – either heterosexual or homosexual – is considered to be very low.

Despite the low risk, long-term monogamous couples must agree upon routine condom use. If the woman is HCV positive, they should avoid unprotected intercourse during menstrual periods. People with multiple sexual partners should always practise safe sex, not only to decrease the small risk of Hepatitis C transmission but to minimize the risk of acquiring other infections.

How do I know if I have Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C can only be diagnosed through blood tests, which can detect the virus infection. If you think you may have been exposed to HCV through high-risk behaviour, major surgery, a blood transfusion or blood products and are worried about the risk, you should see your physician and discuss whether you will need to be tested.

What happens if I test positive?

If you test positive for antibodies to HCV, your physician will do a follow-up blood test to see whether actual viral material can be found in your blood, along with blood tests to check the state of your liver. About 15-25% of people infected with HCV have a mild, brief disease and get rid of the virus completely. In this case, the antibodies to HCV usually remain detectable in the blood but the actual viral material does not. More commonly, majority of the people who get Hepatitis C will have HCV infection for a long time and possibly for the rest of their lives.

Can I have children or breastfeed if I have Hepatitis C?

The risk of passing Hepatitis C to your newborn is approximately 5%. Cesarean section is not recommended to prevent HCV infection. Breastfeeding may be allowed as it does not appear to transmit Hepatitis C unless nipples are cracked or bleeding.

What must I do to protect others?

If you have been diagnosed with Hepatitis C there is no cause for you to adopt social seclusion. However, it is important to remember that there are common-sense precautions you will need to take in order to avoid spreading the virus:

  • Never donate blood.
  • Refrain from sharing razors, nail clippers and toothbrushes.
  • If you use drugs, ensure that you do not share needles or other drug-related equipment.
  • Inform health professionals who care for you and may be exposed to your blood that you have Hepatitis C.
  • Although the risk of sexual transmission is low, inform your sexual partner(s) that you have Hepatitis C and be sure to take suitable precautions.

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