Outlook for hepatitis C
Between three and five million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C. If you don’t treat the symptoms properly, this infection can damage your liver, including scarring and inflammation. Hepatitis C used to be difficult to treat and often resulted in the loss of life, but there are greater chances of curing or managing this condition thanks to modern medicine and research.
Of the different forms of hepatitis, hepatitis C is the only one that a vaccine can’t prevent. For this reason, it has historically been a threat to otherwise healthy people and often resulted in liver failure. Thankfully, there are now several effective medications that can completely cure the condition if it’s caught early enough.
Studies show that if infected with hepatitis C, your body can fight it on its own and win. However, 75-85% of people develop chronic hepatitis C and will experience slow, consistent damage to the liver. If left untreated, between 5-20% of people with hepatitis C go on to experience extreme damage and scar tissue on the liver--something that can happen over the course of 20 years. At this point, 10-20% of people’s conditions worsen to full-on liver failure, something that can only be remedied by a successful liver transplant.
If the infection is diagnosed early enough, you can cure or manage hepatitis C to prevent severe damage to your liver. There is no concrete life expectancy for someone with this infection because of the many variables, including when you contract it, when you receive a positive diagnosis, preexisting liver conditions, and so on.
Symptoms of hepatitis C
Many people with acute hepatitis C will never have symptoms. If you do contract acute hepatitis C, it could take anywhere from two weeks to six months for signs of the infection to show up. If you develop chronic hepatitis C, you could be symptom free for decades. For this reason, you may not know if you have hepatitis C for a long time, although you can still pass the virus along. When signs of hepatitis C do appear, they can include:
- Low appetite
- Stomach pain
- Dark-colored urine
- Gray-colored stools
- Pain in your joint
When you reach the point of having symptoms, it’s likely that your liver has been damaged already. The best way to get ahead of this virus and protect your liver is to get tested regularly. A test will confirm that you have hepatitis C and not a different condition with similar symptoms.
Causes of hepatitis C
You can get hepatitis C when your own blood is directly exposed to blood from someone who already has hepatitis C. Common situations in which hepatitis C is spread include:
- Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment that has infected blood on it
- Getting an organ donation or blood transfusion before 1992 before donors were screened for hepatitis C
- Being stuck with a needle that has infected blood on it; health care workers must beware of this situation
- Not having proper infection control in health care facilities
- Passing the hepatitis C virus from mother to unborn baby; this happens less than 5% of the time
- Receiving a blood transfusion or medical or dental procedure in a place where the medical equipment hasn’t been properly sterilized
You can’t contract this infection via casual contact. This means that hugging, kissing, sharing utensils with an infected person will not give you hepatitis C.
Testing for hepatitis C
Visit a healthcare provider if you have symptoms of hepatitis C or if you don’t have symptoms but there’s a risk that you’ve been infected. They will perform a blood test to confirm whether or not you have this virus. Your primary care provider, a sexual health clinic, or a drug treatment center may be able to test you for hepatitis C. It’s important to seek a diagnosis as soon as possible to prevent or minimize damage done to your liver and how many people you pass the infection on to.
You should be tested regularly, especially if any of the following apply to you:
- You were born between 1945 and 1965
- You are a current or previous injection drug user; this applies even if you only injected once or haven’t injected for many years
- You received a blood transfusion or an organ donations before July 1992
- You received clotting factor concentrates made before 1987
- You are a long-term hemodialysis patient
- You have confirmed exposure to hepatitis C
- You are a healthcare worker and have been stuck by needles
- You received blood or an organ from someone who, at a later date, tested positive for hepatitis C
- You were born to a woman that already had hepatitis C
- You’ve been infected with HIV
- You have liver disease or have received an abnormal liver test
Treating hepatitis C
If your test for hepatitis C comes back positive, you should see a liver specialist soon after. They will evaluate your liver’s health, including:
- Double checking that you have hepatitis C by giving you a HEP C RNA test
- Examining how much scar tissue is on your liver by taking a biopsy and/org giving you an MRI or ultrasound to determine your best course of treatment
- Establishing the hepatitis C genotype through a blood test to determine what medication will best treat your condition
- Asking what symptoms and complications you’ve experienced
For a long time there wasn’t a cure for hepatitis C, but now the infection can be both managed and completely cured. Newer medications have higher success rates, help your body heal quicker, resulting in fewer side effects than old treatments.
End stages of hepatitis C
The hepatitis C virus damages the liver slowly, over the course of many years, starting with inflammation and leading to permanent scarring that’s known as cirrhosis. You likely won’t have serious signs of liver disease for a long period of time, and you will develop cirrhosis before you’re able to protect your liver. Once you reach this stage, your treatment will focus on not damaging your liver further. Symptoms of the final stage of this condition include:
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Jaundice, or yellowing of your eyes and skin
- Extreme itching
- Stomach pain
- Decreased appetite
- Swelling in your stomach and legs due to fluid buildup
- Poor memory and concentration
You may experience liver failure as your cirrhosis progresses. In addition to the symptoms listed above, you may experience:
- Bleeding in your gastrointestinal system. This happens as a result of enlarged veins that run from your throat and your stomach, also known as esophageal varices.
- Damage to your nervous system and brain. This happens because of the buildup of toxins in your bloodstream, also known as hepatic encephalopathy.
Slowing or even stopping the deterioration of your liver is possible, but the most effective way to treat this condition is a liver transplant.
See a specialist
If you have end-stage liver disease or any stage of hepatitis C, consider visiting a healthcare provider that specializes in liver disease or gastrointestinal disease. There is no set life expectancy for someone who has been diagnosed with hepatitis C, but the length and quality of life may increase with an early diagnosis and diligent treatment.
Mayo Clinic: "Hepatitis C: What happens in end-stage liver disease?."
NHS Inform: "Hepatitis C."
UT Southwestern Medical Center: "Hepatitis C doesn't have to be a life sentence."
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