First identified in 1989, the hepatitis C virus now affects approximately 250,000 Canadians. Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes acute or chronic liver inflammation. The liver is a vital organ that serves many purposes and plays a crucial role in ensuring the proper function of the body.
Oftentimes, those infected with the virus do not present any symptoms. Although the body's defense system (immune system) can clear the virus from the body on its own, between 70% and 80% of hepatitis C cases develop into chronic hepatitis C. Having chronic hepatitis C does not necessarily mean that you will experience severe symptoms. However, after several years, it can lead to liver cirrhosis and even liver cancer. Liver cirrhosis is the leading cause of liver transplant.
Hepatitis C is, in essence, transmitted through blood contact. The virus may also be sexually transmitted but the risk is quite low. Although an infected person may not have any symptoms, they can still unknowingly transmit the virus. Those most at risk for becoming infected by the hepatitis C virus are:
- Hemodialysis patients
- Those with body piercings and tattoos
- Those who received blood or blood products prior to 1992
- Intravenous drug users
- Those who are HIV positive
Symptoms may appear within 2 weeks to 6 months after exposure to the hepatitis C virus. However, about 2/3 of those infected are asymptomatic, meaning that they do not have any symptoms and therefore have no idea that they have the disease. Symptoms can also develop years after the initial infection. Symptoms include:
- dark urine
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- loss of appetite
The diagnosis of hepatitis C requires more than a simple examination at the doctor's office. It is detected through a blood test. If the test reveals that virus antibodies and the virus itself are present, the physician may request a liver biopsy. This entails retrieving a small liver sample using a thin needle. The biopsy is used to determine the degree of liver inflammation and the course of the disease.
Several drugs are available. Treatment may require nothing more that taking tablets or capsules orally. Sometimes however, more than one drug is needed. Depending on the patient's condition and type of hepatitis C, the medication may be administered as an injection. Treatment lasts several weeks. The goal of treatment is to cure the disease in order to maintain normal liver function and prevent disease-related complications.
Currently, there is no vaccine available to prevent hepatitis C. It is possible however, to reduce the risk of contracting the disease by following a few simple rules:
- Never share personal care items (e.g., toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, moisturizing lip balms).
- Never share needles or any other drug paraphernalia.
- Wear latex gloves if you are likely to be in contact with someone else's blood.
- Always use condoms when engaging in sexual relations, particularly if you have more than one partner.
- If you are getting a tattoo, a body piercing or acupuncture, always choose a reputable, licensed expert who follows strict infection control procedures. It is important to make sure that the inks, jewelry and needles are not being reused and are sterile.
It is important to continue to follow these rules even if you have completed your treatment, since reinfection is possible. If you have hepatitis C, it is recommended that you avoid drinking alcohol in an effort to prevent long-term complications. You should also take care of your liver by drinking plenty of water, eating a healthy diet, getting enough rest and avoiding smoking, drugs and stress. It is recommended that you undergo testing for other types of hepatitis as well as HIV, since these viruses can be transmitted in the same way as hepatitis C. If you have not already done so, it is also suggested that you get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.
For more information or for support:
CATIE: Canada's source for HIV and hepatitis C information