Hepatitis C (HCV) Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention And Prognosis

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Hepatitis is a term that refers to the inflammation of the liver, one of the most vital of all the organs in the body. There are many different forms of hepatitis, and hepatitis C is one of them. All variants of the disease are caused by infection of the liver: this can be from other diseases, from viral infections, from over-indulgence in alcohol, from poisons and toxins, or from certain medications. Hepatitis C is a variant caused by the specific hepatitis C virus (HCV). In this article we will discuss hepatitis C symptoms, the causes of the disease, what to do about it and how it is treated. Let’s start by looking at some hepatitis C symptoms.

Symptoms

One of the major problems with hepatitis C is that four out of five patients do not display any symptoms. Even those that do may have been suffering from the disease for several weeks before the symptoms materialised. This is why it is difficult to diagnose the disease at the outset. For the record, the symptoms that remaining 20% of patients may experience include the following:

As it is, all of these can also be associated with a variety of other diseases, so should not automatically be taken as being indicative of hepatitis C. However, should they persist it is important that you seek medical attention.

Overview

Hepatitis C is an increasingly problematic disease; it is estimated that, in the USA alone, almost 20,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. If the infection does not resolve, or does not respond to medication, it becomes chronic hepatitis C. This means it is ongoing and constant. In fact, three quarters of patients become sufferers of the chronic variety. The fact is, however, that most of them – with the right treatment – will live a normal life; there is the risk of gradual liver deterioration which can eventually be fatal. Liver failure can mean the patient needs a transplant, a very serious procedure indeed. It is also a fact that many people have developed antibodies to the disease, which means that – unknowingly – they have suffered from it in the past.

Is Hepatitis C Contagious?

This question has a simple answer: yes. Hepatitis C is contagious; the most common way of contracting the disease is by the sharing of needles among drug users. It is estimated that a third of younger drug users are infected, and the number is growing all the time. There have been examples of transfusions passing the disease, but modern tests have eliminated this problem. There are other methods of transferring that are less common: sexual intercourse with an infected person; mother to baby transmission; medical instruments that have not been properly sterilised. These are quite rare occurrences, however, and it is important to remember that you cannot get it by being near someone who suffers as it is not an air-borne virus.

Causes

Hepatitis C is specifically caused by the HCV virus; this is a small virus that is impossible to see without very powerful magnifying equipment. It occurs mainly in the liver, where it is best able to replicate. The virus is unrelated to that which causes the other variants of hepatitis. As we have already mentioned, the major cause of transference of the disease is through infected needles among drug users. In some cases the source of infection remains unknown.

When To Seek Medical Care

As the general symptoms of hepatitis C can be similar to many other conditions it is important to know when you should be concerned. You should see a doctor if:

  • You see the symptoms of jaundice or your urine becomes dark in colour
  • You have nausea or vomiting for more than two days
  • You have persistence pains in the abdomen
  • You suspect you have been exposed to the virus
  • You have a severe pain and fever
  • You become confused and disorientated
  • You are difficult to wake

If you cannot get to see a doctor and you seriously suspect hepatitis C you should get to a hospital as soon as is possible.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis will begin with your doctor asking you about your symptoms: how long you have suffered from them, when they came about, and any other relevant enquiries. You will be asked if you have been in contact with anyone infected, or if you have been travelling lately. A blood test will be carried out, and there are several tests that can identify Hepatitis C. Tests will also be carried out to check the function of the liver – the organ that Hepatitis C attacks – and a liver biopsy may be carried out to determine the stage the disease has reached.

Hepatitis C Treatment

Treatment for Hepatitis C involves a combination of self-care and medication; only in very serious cases will surgery be considered.

Self-Care at Home – when undergoing treatment for hepatitis C the patient is advised to adhere to the following tips:

  • Relax and rest, no vigorous exercise should be carried out;
  • Keep up fluid intake to prevent dehydration, especially if vomiting;
  • Avoid all alcoholic drinks;
  • Make sure your regular medication is not harmful to the liver;

These simple rules should help the recovery process.

Medical Treatment – treatment for Hepatitis C depends upon the individual; for instance, if a patient is suffering from dehydration there may be a need for intravenous fluids to be administered. Cases with vomiting will be given medicines to control this. One of the problems with using medications is the expense, and also the nature of the individual in other ways; with fewer than 30% of patients developing cirrhosis – the remainder will lead practically normal lives – medication is usually given to high risk patients. Treatment is intended to rid the body of the virus, and in many cases is 100% acceptable.

However, if the patient suffers from other medical conditions they may not be able to take the medication. Such conditions include:

  • HIV/AIDS
  • Depression and other mental conditions
  • Patients with history of alcohol or drug abuse
  • Patients with anaemia
  • Those with already severe cirrhosis

Medications

Treating Hepatitis C involves a selection of drugs; Pegylated interferon alpha is a drug that is injected, while Ribavirin is taken orally. Combined, these two drugs are designed to combat the HCV virus. There are always new drugs for Hepatitis C in development, but these are the standard issue varieties.

Surgery

Surgery will only be considered in patients who are suffering from the final stages of liver disease. In such cases, the only possible treatment is a liver transplant. This is a serious and complex operation that may or may not be successful. Your consultant will discuss this option with you if it is viable.

Other Therapy

As with all such diseases there is a great deal of research going into the treatment of Hepatitis C, with particular emphasis on alternative medicines. While there are those who espouse the use of such as liquorice, milk, ginseng and other alternative medicines it is not recommended that you rely on them. You must see a doctor for correct diagnosis if you suspect hepatitis C.

What Are The Side Effects Of Treatment For Hepatitis C Infection?

As with many medicines the drugs used to treat Hepatitis C do have known side-effects. Some are mild, while others can be quite nasty. Here are the common side-effects of the Hepatitis C drugs:

  • Weight loss and fatigue
  • Itching – often very serious
  • Depression and irritability
  • Muscle aches
  • Mild fever and headaches
  • Low blood count (anaemia)
  • Skin rash
  • Sinus congestion and coughs

These will all be temporary and present only for the duration of treatment.

 Prevention

At present there is no way of actively preventing the transmission of the HCV virus by vaccination; work is ongoing to develop a method of prevention in this way. You should avoid coming into contact with infected blood, and refrain from injecting illicit drugs. Do not indulge in high risk sexual acts. Avoiding alcohol can lessen the risk, as alcohol can weaken and damage the liver, and if you are suffering from hepatitis C, make sure you are vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B.

Prognosis

The fact is that most sufferers do not develop serious complications from hepatitis C; they are able to live perfectly normal lives with the right medication. No more than 30% of patients contract cirrhosis. If a patient does develop cirrhosis then they stand the chance of liver failure, and a greater risk of liver cancer. There are very rare complications that can occur with the kidneys, blood, bone marrow and other organs. Generally, the prognosis is that hepatitis C can be managed in most patients.

Who Invented The Vaccine For Hepatitis C?

As things stand there is no known vaccine for hepatitis C, although there are for other variants. Research is ongoing to find a vaccine, but there is no definite breakthrough as yet.

Is Hepatitis C Sexually Transmitted?

Hepatitis C can be sexually transmitted; if you are reckless and indulge in several partners, or in high-risk acts such as anal sex, you are increasing the chances of contracting the virus. It is best to refrain from sexual activity with anyone known to be suffering from hepatitis C.

What Is The Difference Between Hepatitis B And C?

The hepatitis C virus – HCV – has no relation to that which causes hepatitis B. The symptoms and effects may be the same, but the virus itself is completely different. Hepatitis B is more easily treatable than hepatitis C, and there are successful vaccines that prevent its transmission. Hepatitis B is also much less common than hepatitis C, with far fewer sufferers worldwide.

We hope that this article has enabled you to understand all you need to know about hepatitis C, as well as giving you an idea of what you should do if you suspect you are suffering from the symptoms. It can be treated, and it is possible that sufferers can lead a full and varied life with the right medication.

Written By Miranda Stephens

Miranda Stephens, MD is certified by the American Board of Family Medicine. Dr. Stephens earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado.She completed a residency in Family Medicine at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 2006 Dr. Stephens was chosen for Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

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