Hepatitis C 101: Simple Answers to Basic Questions

1) What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver, liver disease. The term derives from hepat- ( lt; hepar), the Greek root for “liver”, and the ending -itis, which denotes “inflammation”.

2) What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a type of hepatitis (viral infection of the liver). Hepatitis C is caused by a virus called HCV (= Hepatitis C Virus). HCV is a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver cells.

3) Is Hepatitis C infectious?

Yes, it is highly infectious.

4) How is Hepatitis C transmitted?

Hepatitis C is transmitted through direct contact with blood infected with HCV. Persons who inject illegal drugs are at high risk for hepatitis C. Transmission from mother to child during birth (perinatal transmission) or through sexual contact is possible but not common. HCV is not transmitted through casual contact, sneezing, hugging, food and water.

5) What are the chances of contracting HCV through a blood transfusion?

Minimal: Less than 1 chance in 2 million units of blood.

6) What happens after exposure to HCV?

The first stage after exposure to the hepatitis C virus is acute infection. Acute hepatitis will set in about 10-14 weeks after exposure to HCV. During the acute phase, the body mounts an intense immune response to clear the virus. In about 20% of cases, there will be clearance of the virus. In the remaining 80%, chronic infection will develop. In 10-25% of chronically infected persons, hepatitis C will progress over a period of 10-40 years. Hepatitis C progression can lead to scarring of the liver tissue (cirrhosis) and liver cancer.

7) What are the signs and symptoms of HCV infection?

As many as 80% of infected persons are asymptomatic, i.e. they show no signs or symptoms of having been infected with HCV. In other cases, there are mild, flu-like symptoms, such as fever, muscle and joint pain, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and fatigue. Jaundice and tenderness in the abdominal area are stronger indications of possible exposure to the hepatitis C virus.

8) How is Hepatitis C diagnosed?

If you experience any of the above symptoms or think that you may have been exposed to HCV, even if you are asymptomatic, consult your physician immediately. There are several tests available for the diagnosis of hepatitis C. The anti-HCV test detects antibodies to HCV. Other tests can determine the genotype (genetic makeup, strain) of HCV you may have been infected with as well as measure the amount of virus (viral load) in the bloodstream. A liver biopsy is the ultimate diagnostic procedure in hepatitis C: Liver tissue is examined to determine the degree of liver inflammation and the presence (or absence) of cirrhosis.

9) Is there a vaccine for Hepatitis C?

No vaccine for hepatitis C has been developed.

10) What is the treatment for chronic HCV infection?

Currently, the treatment of choice for chronic hepatitis C is a combination of the drugs interferon and ribavirin. At end-stage liver disease, a liver transplant is the only therapeutic option.

11) Can lifestyle choices influence the progression of HCV infection?

Absolutely. Healthy lifestyle choices and a visit to a gastroenterologist can slow down the progression of HCV infection and make the condition more manageable. Such choices are: maintenance of healthy weight; a balanced nutrition, high in fiber and antioxidants and low in sugar and fat; no smoking; no alcohol; regular exercise; plenty of rest; a mutually monogamous sexual relationship.


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