Hepatitis C is a virus that causes inflammation and damages the liver. It can be chronic or acute and develops after an individual is infected with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). There’s no vaccine available for Hepatitis C, unlike A and B. The spread of Hepatitis C all over the world can be attributed to the fact that this is a highly contagious virus.
Viral Hepatitis Types
There are 5 viral classifications of Hepatitis (A, B, C, D & E), that affect the liver, with each of the Hepatitis types caused by a different virus.
Hepatitis A is a short-term infection and is usually acute. Hepatitis B, C, and D can persist over a long time, and will, in most cases, be chronic. Hepatitis E, on the other hand, is often acute, but it can be extremely dangerous for pregnant women.
Hepatitis A. This type is caused by the Hepatitis A virus (HAV). The most common form of transmission is by coming into contact with or consuming water or food that’s contaminated with feces from a Hepatitis A infected person.
Hepatitis B. This type is transmitted through contact, especially with infected body fluids like vaginal secretion, blood, semen that contain the HBV virus. Engaging in high-risk activities such as unprotected sex with an infected person, using injectable drugs or sharing things like needles and razors increase the risk of infection.
According to the CDC, more than 350 million people in the world have Hepatitis B, with more than 1.2 million in the US alone.
Hepatitis C. As mentioned earlier, Hepatitis C is transmitted through infection with the HCV virus. It’s transmitted through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person, as is the case with Hepatitis B. This is one of the most common viral blood infections in the US, with more than 3 million Americans currently infected.
Hepatitis D. Hepatitis D is also known as delta hepatitis and is a chronic liver infection that’s caused by the hepatitis D virus (HDV). Transmission also happens through contact with blood or body fluids from an infected person.
The occurrence of hepatitis D is unique because it only occurs together with hepatitis B. Without hepatitis B, hepatitis D cannot manifest.
Hepatitis E. While the other types are transmitted through interaction with body fluids from an infected person, hepatitis E is different. It occurs as a result of infection with the hepatitis E virus (HEV). This is a waterborne virus that primarily manifests as a result of improper sanitation. Usually, those affected have consumed water that’s contaminated with fecal matter. It’s an uncommon virus in the US, and most of the cases are reported in Africa, Central America, Asia and the Middle East.
Chronic Hepatitis C. When you are infected with hepatitis C, the symptoms can manifest in a very short time and will last a number of weeks. Chronic hepatitis, on the other hand, gradually develops within a few months. During the early stages, it might not even be noticeable. Currently, there are more than 70 million people all over the world who suffer from chronic Hepatitis C, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, more than 70% of the people who have Hepatitis C never show any symptoms. However, there are some who might report mild symptoms, that might often be mistaken for something else.
Some of the symptoms of Hepatitis C include:
- Discomfort or abdominal pain
- Appetite loss
- Dark urine
- Pain in the joints
These symptoms are not instant. In fact, in some patients, they might appear only after 6 weeks.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C in Men
Men are usually more vulnerable to infections than women, and when they are infected, they struggle to fight off the virus. Based on relevant studies, there’s a higher clearance rate in women than in men. This is the rate at which the body rids itself of the virus to the point that it cannot be detected at all.
In fact, more women can clear the virus than men. Scientists haven’t been able to find the real reason behind this but there are some possible factors that might be responsible, including the following:
- Whether the infected person has other infections like HIV
- The age when the person got infected with Hepatitis C
- How they got infected (drug use, sexual contact, blood transfusion)
This is a blood-borne disease, so it can only be transmitted through contact with blood from an infected person. There are several ways through which this can happen, including sexual intercourse.
There’s actually a higher risk of contracting Hepatitis C through anal sex, basically because of the fragile nature of the anal tissues which may tear and bleed during intercourse. Infection can occur even with the tiniest exchange of blood between the infected and non-infected party. In fact, microscopic tears on the skin that you might not be able to see with a naked eye are more than enough to warrant infection.
There are other people too who might have a high risk of Hepatitis C infection, especially those who do the following:
- Were born between the years 1945 and 1964
- Have HIV/AIDS
- Have had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Require dialysis for a very long time
- Have a body piercing or tattoo from infected needles
- Share needles when using recreational drugs.
You might not necessarily engage in high-risk behavior, but the mere act of sharing a toothbrush or razor blade with someone who’s infected can be enough to pass on the HCV virus.
How Do People Get Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is only transmitted from infected persons through blood to blood contact.
There are several cases when this can happen, including the following:
- Bloodied sexual contact
- Childbirth if the mother has Hepatitis C
- Sharing needles
- Sharing toothbrushes
- Sharing a razor blade
- Blood transfusion
- Organ transplant
There are people who are considered high-risk persons, and vulnerable to Hepatitis C infection.
They include those who:
- Reuse needles
- Have sex with an infected partner
- Were born to an infected mother
- Have been receiving hemodialysis for a long time
- Have used blood products like clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Have had an organ transplant
- Have had a blood transfusion before 1992
Is It Contagious?
While Hepatitis C is contagious, it’s highly unlikely that you will be infected through casual contact. It only spreads through blood contact. In fact, there are lots of other infections out there that are way more contagious than hepatitis C.
How Hepatitis C Can’t Spread
Hepatitis C is not an airborne disease like a common cold. Therefore, you cannot get it when you share your food with someone, through coughing or sneezing. It’s also not possible to get infected by hugging or kissing someone who’s already infected.
However, there’s a small chance of infection in case you share some of your personal care items with someone who’s already infected, like a razor blade or a toothbrush. Anything that creates a chance of blood to blood contact is a risk.
On the same note, there’s a very low risk of infection through sexual contact, especially if both participating parties maintain a monogamous lifestyle. However, in case one of the partners has ever engaged in multiple sexual relationships, has had sex with someone infected with Hepatitis C, or might engage in a high-risk sexual behavior, you need to consider using protection.
For those who travel from time to time, you cannot be infected when you travel abroad, unless through blood to blood contact with someone who has Hepatitis C, or if you receive a blood donation from an infected person.
How to Diagnose Hepatitis
History and Physical Exam. The doctor must first study your medical history to check for any risk factors that you might be exposed to, which leave you vulnerable to hepatitis (infectious or not). During the physical examination, the doctor tries to see if you feel tenderness or pain by pressing down on your abdomen gently.
They must also run tests to determine whether the liver has become larger. Other signs that the doctor will be looking for include yellow eyes or yellow skin.
Liver Function Tests. These are tests that are conducted through blood samples to understand the efficiency of your liver’s performance. The first indication that you might be having a problem will be abnormal results from these tests, particularly for someone who doesn’t show any sign of a problem during the physical live examination.
The doctor will know your liver is under undue pressure, damaged or is not working at full capacity when they notice high levels of liver enzymes.
Other Blood Tests. In case all your liver tests come back abnormal, your doctor will request for more tests in order to identify where the problem lies. These tests will look for, among other things, hepatitis-causing viruses. These can also be used to look for antibodies that occur naturally in the body in such a situation.
Ultrasound. You might be asked to do an ultrasound test. The ultrasound waves show images of all the organs that lie within the abdominal cavity. Through this test, the doctor has the best view of the liver and the organs close by.
This test will also show the following:
- Tumors in the liver
- Gallbladder abnormalities
- Enlarged or damaged liver
- Fluid within the abdomen
In these images, it might also be possible to see the pancreas. This is one of the most useful tests that can tell the doctor the real reason behind your abnormal liver function.
Liver Biopsy. Through a biopsy, the doctor will be able to get sample tissue from the liver, which they can then take to the lab to run tests. This procedure doesn’t always require surgery since it can also be done with a needle through the skin. In other cases, the doctor might use an ultrasound to guide them as they take the sample.
It’s from this test that the doctor can figure out how damaged the liver is as a result of the inflammation. This might also be used to get samples of the parts of the liver which might seem abnormal.
Hepatitis C Antibody
When foreign substances get into the body, the immune system is triggered to produce antibodies. These are produced uniquely to fend off the foreign substance. Therefore, when you are infected with Hepatitis C, the body will produce Hepatitis C antibodies to fight the HCV virus.
Your body will only produce Hepatitis C antibodies in case you already have Hepatitis C. Therefore, this test is useful in determining whether you have an HCV infection or not.
Hepatitis C Vaccine
At the time of this writing, there’s no vaccine for Hepatitis C. There are, however, several ways to prevent and treat Hepatitis C.
How to Treat Hepatitis
The treatment options for hepatitis depend on two things, the type of hepatitis and whether it is chronic or acute.
Hepatitis A. This is a short-term infection, and in most cases, you might not need treatment. Most of the time, patients simply get bed rest, especially if they feel uncomfortable. In case you have diarrhea or you vomit a lot, your doctor can guide you on the best procedure for nutrition and hydration.
There’s, however, a vaccine for Hepatitis A which is usually administered to children between 12 and 18 months old. For adults, there’s also a vaccine which is administered together with the vaccine for Hepatitis B.
Hepatitis B. Specific treatment is not always necessary for acute Hepatitis B. However, there’s an antiviral medication that can be used to treat chronic Hepatitis B. Treatment might last a few months or years in some cases, so it might be an expensive ordeal.
The patient will also need to consult a doctor from time to time while keeping tabs on the virus to make sure it’s responding well to the treatment.
Vaccination is the easiest way to prevent Hepatitis C. According to the CDC, all newborn babies should get the vaccine which is available in a set of three vaccines. They should be done by the time the child turns 6 months old. Everyone in the healthcare industry is also advised to get this vaccine.
Hepatitis C. There are antiviral medicines that are used to treat chronic and acute Hepatitis C. Individuals who develop chronic Hepatitis C might be given different drug therapies. To determine the best treatment, they might also be subject to more tests.
If you have developed liver cirrhosis as a result of chronic Hepatitis C, one of the best options for you would be a liver transplant. As it is, there’s no known vaccine available for Hepatitis C.
Hepatitis D. There’s no medicine yet for treating Hepatitis D. However, in 2013, a study was conducted using a trial drug, Alpha Interferon to treat Hepatitis D. This drug only yielded progress in around 30% of those who used it.
It’s, however, possible to prevent hepatitis D by using the Hepatitis B vaccine, because it cannot develop without hepatitis B.
Hepatitis E. There are no medical therapies present for treating hepatitis E. More often, this infection is acute, and as a result, it just resolves on its own. Individuals who have Hepatitis E usually get relief by resting, eating enough nutrients, drinking lots of fluids and keeping away from alcohol for a while. In the case of pregnant women, however, it’s advisable to see a doctor for further monitoring.
Autoimmune Hepatitis. Treating autoimmune hepatitis during the early stages is easier with the use of corticosteroids like budesonide and prednisone. More than 80% of individuals who have taken these treatments have had good results.
One of the most effective drugs that are usually administered is Azathioprine (Imuran) which can be administered with or without the use of steroids. There are other drugs that can be used as an alternative to Azathioprine, including Tacrolimus, Mycophenolate, and Cyclosporine.
Hepatitis C Medications
There are several medicines that have been used in the past to treat Hepatitis C, including antivirals and interferons. Not all the hepatitis medicines treat all the HCV infections, especially because of various genotypes of the HCV virus. Your doctor will try to figure out the type of Hepatitis C you have so that they can prescribe the right medication that will work best for you.
Complications Associated with Hepatitis C
There are a lot of complications that might be associated with Hepatitis C, including liver cancer and cirrhosis. In some severe cases, the Hepatitis C patients will need to have a liver transplant. Most of the time, complications occur as a result of chronic Hepatitis C.
The sooner you can get a diagnosis for chronic Hepatitis C, the sooner you should start your treatment so that you don’t have to experience the full-blown complications.
Hepatitis C Guidelines
Hepatitis C will manifest in different people in a unique way. Because of this reason, there’s no specific guideline for managing the infection. However, you can talk to your doctor about making a few changes in your life that will help you manage the infection better, like making lifestyle changes or starting a new diet.
Hepatitis C Screening
Hepatitis C is transmitted through the blood so it can’t spread as easily as most of the other infectious diseases. While there might be treatments for Hepatitis C, most of them come with serious side effects. One of the safest options you have is prevention.
In case you are a high-risk individual, it’s wise to get Hepatitis C screening regularly. In case you get infected, the earlier you know about this and start treatment, the better.
Acute vs. Chronic Infection
Doctors use the type of hepatitis virus to determine whether you have an acute or chronic infection. An acute infection shouldn’t last more than 6 months. Anything that exceeds 6 months is a chronic infection.
In the case of Hepatitis B, the infection can either be chronic or acute. Most of the people who have acute hepatitis B rarely progress to the chronic level. On the other hand, acute Hepatitis C can easily advance to chronic levels. In fact, more than 75% of people who are diagnosed with Hepatitis C usually advance to chronic Hepatitis C, according to reports from the CDC.
If you have acute Hepatitis C, you might not display any symptoms. In fact, most of the acute hepatitis C cases are asymptomatic. This means that you barely notice the symptoms. Only around 15% of the acute infections usually show symptoms.
A high percentage of people who have Hepatitis C barely ever clear the virus, and as a result, they become chronic carriers.
This can become a problem later on in life because the infection will cause other problems that can be fatal such as the following:
Liver Cancer. When liver cells are reproducing at a fast rate, you might develop tumors which can cause liver cancer. If the Hepatitis C advances to cirrhosis, you will be at a very high risk of liver cancer.
Cirrhosis. This happens as a result of fibrosis (when scar tissues build up) dominating the liver. In case you have cirrhosis, the healthy normal tissue will be replaced by the hard scar tissue, and this prevents the normal function of the liver. It’s important to know that it might take up to 30 years of damage to the liver for cirrhosis to develop.
Liver Failure.This is an advanced stage of the liver disease which means that the liver will have been damaged to the point when it doesn’t function properly. You might even develop jaundice, ascites, stomach bleeding or hepatic encephalopathy. If you have these symptoms, you are in serious need of a liver transplant to save your life.
Every year, more than 300,000 people die as a result of liver diseases linked to Hepatitis C. The only way to prevent this from happening is to seek medical help as soon as you confirm the diagnosis. This is the easiest way to mitigate the damage that hepatitis might do to your body.
How Does Hepatitis C Affect Your Body?
There are two stages of Hepatitis C; chronic and acute. Acute Hepatitis C is within the first 6 months of exposure to the hepatitis virus. It might be a short-lived illness in some people. However, according to the CDC, most people (around 80%) whose immune system doesn’t clear out the virus at this stage eventually advances to the chronic stage. Chronic Hepatitis C can be a lifelong battle. In fact, most people don’t even notice they are infected until some of the symptoms start showing.
Your Liver. The role of the liver is to process blood and filter toxic substances from the bloodstream. The liver also helps with digestion, produces proteins, bile, and important blood components. A healthy liver should also help the body store vitamins and glucose. An HCV infection will inflame the liver, damaging its ability to perform all the important functions it does.
Some of the symptoms might be mild during the early stages, and it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible so that the damage doesn’t become too serious. A chronic infection can easily advance to cirrhosis. As the infection progresses, there are certain symptoms that you will notice like blood disorder, skin problems, and weight loss. When things get out of hand, liver failure, liver cancer, and severe liver damage are possible.
You can visit a doctor to test and measure the HCV antibodies present in your bloodstream. The presence of HCV antibodies in the blood means you are already infected. However, a second blood test would help you allay any fears.
Digestive System. It’s important that you keep your liver healthy, considering that the liver supports several body systems. The liver produces bile, an important substance in fat synthesis. The body stores bile in the gallbladder and transports it to the small intestine as and when needed. The bile will then mix with digestive fluids including stomach acid from the pancreas, helping this way with nutrient absorption into the bloodstream.
The HCV virus will affect the liver’s bile production. When this happens, you will find it difficult to digest fatty food. Over time you will also experience a buildup of fluids within the stomach which can result in abdominal pain. This is a condition known as ascites. It happens when the liver is unable to produce the required amount of albumin to regulate the cellular fluid content.
Some of the other symptoms that you might be having liver problems include:
- Clay or pale-colored stool
- Weight loss
- Lack of appetite
If HCV causes inflammation in your gallbladder, you might endure a lot of pain. This is, however, a rare occurrence, and it only happens during the acute stage of the infection.
Central Nervous System. As long as the liver is unable to filter toxic substances from the blood, it might damage the nervous system. There are a number of symptoms that you might notice, including musty breath, sleep deprivation or problems with your motor skills. In some cases, HCV infection is also linked to dryness in the mouth and eyes.
When toxins build up in the brain, they can cause any of the following situations:
- Personality disorders
- Lack of concentration
Some of the advanced cases include the following symptoms:
- Slurry speech
- Abnormal shaking
In severe instances, you might even end up in a coma.
Circulatory System. Other than filtering out toxins from the body, the liver is also involved in protein synthesis for clean healthy blood and makes sure your blood clotting is regulated. If your liver is not performing well, you might have problems with blood flow, which eventually increases pressure to the portal vein. This, in the long run, causes portal hypertension which eventually forces blood to find pathways through other veins. When blood is forced into these veins, the undue pressure can make them rupture, causing severe internal bleeding (variceal bleeding).
It’s, therefore, impossible for a liver that’s not functioning well to transport, absorb or store iron, and as a result, you might suffer anemia.
Integumentary System. There are several skin problems that are associated with Hepatitis C. Some of the common ones include a loss in the skin pigment, bruises in the eyes, itching, and rashes. One of the important byproducts of hemoglobin breakdown is bilirubin. As long as the liver is not functioning properly, bilirubin will pile up in the body, resulting in jaundice. You will notice this when the skin and eyes start turning yellow. Improper function of the liver might also be caused by poor nutrition, and you will notice this in stunted growth of the nails and hair.
Endocrine and Immune Systems. The role of the endocrine system is to regulate hormones in the body. The thyroid gland is an important part of this system, and its role is to push the hormones into the bloodstream. There are instances where Hepatitis C might cause the immune system to attack the thyroid tissue.
When this happens, there are two possibilities:
- An overactive thyroid – hyperthyroidism, which will cause weight loss and sleep problems
- An underactive thyroid – hypothyroidism, which can cause weight gain or fatigue
Having a healthy liver is important in managing the way sugar is consumed within the body. This also translates to keeping away type 2 diabetes.
Hepatitis C Diet
In case you have been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, there’s no specific diet that you need to keep. However, you should limit your intake of junk food, and instead, start eating healthy food.
The liver naturally acts upon anything that you drink or eat. Therefore, by keeping a proper, clean diet, you will easily improve your liver health, and reduce the damage that can be caused by Hepatitis C.
You should know that your liver is already struggling with inflammation by the time you have Hepatitis C. As time goes by, this might end up in cirrhosis or scarring of the liver, which will definitely hamper or reduce the function of the liver. Since the liver already has too much to deal with, keeping a clean healthy diet might make things easier for your liver.
What You Should Eat
Naturally, you need to get the best nutrients with your meals to live a healthy life. This will go a long way towards protecting your immune system and will also boost your weight management efforts.
You should always keep an eye on your weight when you have Hepatitis C. This is because the more weight you gain, the higher your risk of hepatic steatosis will be. This is a condition where a lot of fat is deposited into the liver, which might eventually make it difficult to control Hepatitis C.
With Hepatitis C, you are already at risk of type 2 diabetes, so it would be wise to be keen on the amount of sugar you consume. You should also consider meal plans, especially approved meal plans like the United States Department of Agriculture MyPlate Plan.
In this plan, the following are the recommendations for a balanced diet:
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are important because they provide the following:
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
- Folic acid
You should try to have no less than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. To get the best results, try to get a variety in the type of fruits and vegetables that you eat. If you buy canned food, make sure you get the ones that don’t have sugar or salt additives.
Protein. Protein foods are important because protein helps replace and repair damaged liver cells.
Some of the best lean protein options you have to include:
- Soy products
- Chicken (skinless)
The recommended amount of daily protein intake depends on things like your level of activity, sex, and age. At least 5 ounces of protein a day is good for you, but for people who have liver cirrhosis, the doctor might recommend more in order to prevent fluid buildup and muscle damage.
Dairy Products. like cheese, yogurt, and milk are rich sources of calcium and proteins. Adults need up to 3 dairy servings daily. When factoring cheese into your diet, a cup should count as two ounces of processed cheese or 1 ½ ounces of natural cheese.
Whole Grains. Whole grains provide natural fiber which helps with proper bowel function and also reduce your risk of heart disease.
Some of the best options you have to include:
- Wild or brown rice
- Whole buckwheat
- Quinoa pasta
- Sprouted whole grain bread
Don’t go for the refined or white products. Instead, insist on whole grain because they have a higher content of:
- Vitamin B group
In the unlikely event that you have Celiac disease, you should stick to gluten-free options like amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat. The quantity varies according to your sex, level of activity and age. An adult needs at least 3 ounces of grains daily, with no less than half coming from whole grains.
What You Shouldn’t Eat
You must pay attention to your calories so you will need to think about the quality as much as the quantity of the food you eat. Too much food will definitely cause weight gain, or make you obese, which makes you vulnerable to diabetes.
To be on the safe side, limit the intake of foods that are:
- Obtained from fast food outlets