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Hepatitis C

Unlike Hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccination currently available for Hepatitis C.

Left untreated, Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer, liver failure or cirrhosis. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Left untreated, Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer, liver failure or cirrhosis.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. There are several hepatitis viruses that all cause liver damage; hepatitis C is the most serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3.2 million Americans have chronic hepatitis C virus infection. Many people who are infected do not suffer any symptoms and may not know they have the virus.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

Many people who have hepatitis C do not exhibit symptoms in the early stages of the virus. People may have the virus for years until it is discovered during a routine physical. Those people who do exhibit symptoms may suffer from fatigue, nausea, poor appetite, muscle pain, jaundice, tenderness in the liver area and fever.

If untreated over time, hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer, liver failure, cirrhosis of the liver or scarring of the liver.

Treatment for Hepatitis C

While there are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. Once a person contracts hepatitis C, the virus rarely resolves by itself. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only 15 percent of people infected with hepatitis C will get rid of the virus through their own immune system, while the other 85 percent will develop chronic or long-term infection.

Standard treatment for hepatitis C consists of weekly injections of pegylated interferon alfa concurrent with a twice-daily oral prescription called ribavirin (Rebetol). These medications aim to clear the virus from the bloodstream. According to the Mayo Clinic, these combined medications clear hepatitis C infection in 40 percent to 80 percent of those treated. People with serious cases of hepatitis C -- who are in the end-stage of liver disease -- may need a liver transplant.

How Hepatitis C Is Spread

Hepatitis C is spread through exposure to contaminated blood or contact with the blood of an infected person. Healthcare workers, drug users, dialysis patients, recipients of blood transfusions before 1992 and children of mothers with hepatitis C are particularly susceptible to infection.

Blood transfusions were once a risk factor for the contraction of hepatitis C. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical facilities did not have adequate screening techniques to test blood used in blood transfusions and organ transplants before 1992. Today, routine blood screening eliminates most contaminated blood.

Hepatitis C can also spread among people who share needles either through the use of illegal drugs, or through the use of medication such as insulin.

Sexual activity may also be a risk factor for contracting hepatitis C. People who have HIV, have a sexually transmitted disease, have multiple partners or engage in rough sex are at risk for contracting or spreading hepatitis C. Mothers who have hepatitis C can give it to their babies during childbirth.

It is important for people who think they might have been exposed to hepatitis C to be tested. Even if people do not exhibit symptoms, they may still transmit the disease to others.

How to Avoid Hepatitis C

To avoid contracting hepatitis C, a person should not come into contact with the blood of an infected person or an item used by that person that could have blood on it, such as a toothbrush, shaving razor or needles or syringes used for injecting medication or illegal drugs.

Healthcare workers, including dental practitioners, should take special precautions when handling needles or surgical instruments that have come in contact with the blood of an infected person. They should also be vaccinated against hepatitis B. Everyone should wear gloves when cleaning up blood spills.

To avoid contracting hepatitis C during sexual activity with multiple partners, people should use a latex condom correctly and use a condom every time they have intercourse. People who get tattoos or body piercing should ensure that the tattoo artist or piercer follows good health practices such as sterilizing all instruments between uses or using fresh needles.

Avoid Hepatitis C While Traveling

Travelers should take steps to avoid contracting hepatitis C when traveling abroad. According to the World Health Organization, 170 million people are estimated to have hepatitis C worldwide.

Travelers should be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B when visiting high-risk countries. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Alerts, high-risk regions of the world for hepatitis C include Africa, South and Central America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Johns Hopkins recommends that travelers avoid beverages that are not sealed, ice cubes, uncooked shellfish and fruits and vegetables the traveler has not peeled or prepared himself.

If travelers are hospitalized, they should ensure that blood products are properly screened, that healthcare workers have taken proper precautions against infection and that safe injection practices are observed.

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