What is hepatitis C?
Now what can be more unsettling than knowing you�re afflicted with hepatitis C, when all you did was to receive blood from a donor! This dreaded blood-borne viral disease of the liver is caused by a virus called the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which can cause liver inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis and liver cancer. Of the estimated 170 million people infected with it worldwide, 4 million are in the US alone, with about 35,000 to 185,000 new cases being added each year. Little wonder, this disease is the leading cause of liver transplant in the country. What�s more alarming is it claims almost 10,000 to 20,000 victims every year in the US!
Transmission of hepatitis C
HCV is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact and not through casual contact, such as hugging, kissing or sharing eating or cooking utensils. You�re at risk if you have (1):
a. Received blood from a donor, who later tested positive for hepatitis C.
b. Received a blood transfusion or solid organ transplant before July, 1992.
c. Received clotting factor made before 1987.
d. Injected illegal drugs, even as an experiment, a few times many years ago.
e. Been on long-term kidney dialysis.
f. Evidence of liver disease.
You�d do well to remember that any practice, activity or situation that involves blood-to-blood exposure can be a potential source of HCV infection. These may include, accidental exposure to blood through combat, calamity or sports; unprotected sex, leading to blood-to-blood contact; body piercing and tattoos, shared personal care items, like razors, toothbrushes, and so on.
Symptoms of hepatitis C
Hepatitis C has two phases � the acute phase and the chronic phase. The acute phase is period of first 6 months after the infection. What�s surprising is that 60 to 70% of those infected show no symptoms during this phase. Those who do, generally show mild and nonspecific symptoms, which are not enough to diagnose the disease. The symptoms may include decreased appetite, fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain, abdominal pain, jaundice, flu-like symptoms, intermittent low-grade fevers, itching, sleep disturbances, nausea, dyspepsia, cognitive changes, depression, headaches and mood swings.
The disease becomes chronic, if it persists for more than six months. The symptoms are inflammation of the liver, fibrosis and cirrhosis. The progression of chronic hepatitis C varies considerably from person to person. If left untreated, this disease will progress to cirrhosis in less than 20 years in some and within 30 years in others, and in still others it won�t even develop within their lifetime. This wide variation depends upon certain factors, like age, more the age, more rapid the progression; gender, males take the lead here; alcohol consumption, more the intake, faster the progression; HIV co-infection increases the progression; and fatty liver, more the fat, more rapid the progression. Want to see what cirrhosis looks like? Scroll to the bottom of the page for the picture.
Diagnosis of hepatitis C
The diagnosis of hepatitis C in acute phase is rare, as there are hardly any symptoms. Those who do show the symptoms are rarely ill enough to seek medical attention. Bad news is the diagnosis of chronic phase becomes possible only once the liver is in the advanced stage of the disease.
Treatment of hepatitis C
A combination of interferon and the antiviral drug ribavirin is the standard treatment for this disease. Of course, treatment during the acute phase of the disease has much higher success rates. However, the bad news is the treatment is physically demanding, especially for those with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Side effects may include 'flu'-like syndrome, anemia, cardiovascular events and psychiatric problems, such as suicide ideation and attempts. Success in treatment has also been reported with the addition of the antiviral drug amantadine to the combination of interferon and ribavirin. However, this is still under study and not approved for treatment.
Hepatitis C is most dreaded because its symptoms are not apparent till it�s too late. So, if you�re a patient of hepatitis C and have not been exposed to hepatitis A and B, get yourself vaccinated against them, as these would radically worsen your liver disease.