Hepatitis C is a viral infection affecting the liver. Most people infected with hepatitis C do not display any symptoms. One-third of patients recover spontaneously from the infection within 6 months, but for the rest, the virus stays in the liver and can cause chronic liver inflammation, cirrhosis, or even liver cancer. Chronic liver failure from chronic hepatitis C infection is the most common reason for liver transplants worldwide.
It is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It is spread through contaminated blood, such as through blood transfusions or use of contaminated syringes or needles during injections or IV drug use. It can also be spread via organ transplantation, through injuries during sexual intercourse, or passed from mother to infant during birth.
Most people who have an acute HCV infection do not experience any symptoms. Otherwise, individuals may present with:
• Nausea and vomiting
• Abdominal pain
• Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
• Weakness and fatigue
• Dark-colored urine and chalk- or light-colored stools
While symptoms like fatigue can be seen in individuals with chronic infection, symptoms affecting other body organs apart from the liver are also common. These may include the heart, kidneys (e.g., changes in urination), and the skin (e.g., itchy rashes or blisters).
HCV infection is diagnosed through a blood test. Other additional tests, including a liver biopsy, may be done to evaluate how much damage the liver already has.
For individuals in whom the infection does not resolve spontaneously, the goal of treatment is to:
• Prevent further liver damage, which is done by not drinking alcohol, not smoking, and avoiding certain medications like paracetamol.
• Cure the infection with anti-viral medications, which can be provided through a physician's prescription.
Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine against HCV. To prevent getting infected with HCV, one should:
• Use a condom during sexual activity for the protection of all partners involved.
• Limit sexual partners.
• Avoid sharing sharp or potentially injurious objects like nail clippers, toothbrushes, or earrings.
• Wear gloves if one has to touch anyone’s blood (e.g., as a laboratory worker).
• Make sure any tattooing or body piercing is done with clean tools.
• Avoid injecting illegal drugs, especially sharing needles.