The Hepatitis C virus affects more than 2 million adults and is the leading cause of liver-related death in the United States. That’s the bad news. The good news is that recent breakthroughs in the past five years have provided drug treatments that can treat and cure Hepatitis C (HCV infection).
Hepatitis means inflammation or swelling of the liver, which makes it harder to do its job of breaking down and filtering out harmful waste in your body. Keep in mind that you only have one liver and it is one of the largest and most important organs in your body. It actually serves several functions including:
- Producing bile to help in the digestion of fat
- Producing blood clotting and healing chemicals
- Breaking down drugs and alcohol
- Filtering out harmful chemicals
- Removing waste
- Storing nutrients you need such fat, sugar and vitamins from your food, and releasing them into the bloodstream as needed.
What causes the virus?
Hepatitis C is a blood-born virus, which means it is contracted when blood from an infected person enters the blood stream of someone who is not infected (much like HIV). So those people who share drug needles or other equipment to inject drugs are at high risk for the disease. Also, those people who received organ transplants or blood transfusions before 1992 are also at risk since there was no standardized screening for Hepatitis C before then. The virus can be spread through unprotected sex, especially anal sex, since there’s more likelihood of a break in skin. It is not contagious like a common cold, but can be spread whenever there is a breakdown in the skin, so sharing a toothbrush, razor blade or nail clippers can possibly transmit the disease.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently stated that those people born between 1945 and 1965 are members of what they call “The Hepatitis C Generation,” and should be tested for the disease. Baby Boomers are five times more likely to have the disease, in fact, 3 in 4 people who were born during that time period have the virus. Baby Boomers are believed to have become infected with the virus from the 1960s to the 1980s, when transmission of the disease was at its highest rate, before infection control, and universal screenings and precautions were adopted by the medical community.
Here are some other risk factors for contracting HCV:
- Having tattoos or body piercings in an unsterile environment
- Being born to a mother who has HCV
- Healthcare workers working in a place where you come in contact with possibly infected needles or blood
- Have had unprotected sex with multiple partners
How do you know you have it?
Because an HCV infection produces no symptoms or very mild symptoms during the early stages of it, many people don’t know they have HCV until many years later when they have liver damage show up during a routine medical test. When you do have symptoms, they show up mainly like flu-virus symptoms and appear two weeks to six months after contracting the virus. They include feeling tired, having sore muscles and joints, fever, stomach pain, nausea, itchy skin, jaundice and dark-colored urine. About 25% of people who contract the Hepatitis C virus have it clear on its own within approximately six months without any medication. However, the rest develop a chronic Hepatitis C infection which can cause other serious health issues such as liver cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure, all of which can be deadly. This is why being tested is so important, especially if you’ve had any symptoms of liver disease.
There are two main blood tests used to diagnose the disease. The first is a an antibody screening to show if you’ve ever had Hepatitis C at some point in your life (the antibodies still show up in your blood, even if you are one of the 25% who’s body cleared it). If it comes back negative, then it means you’ve never been exposed to the virus and no further testing need be done. If it comes back positive, then you are given a second test, the Hepatitis C RNA Qualitative test, to see if you have the virus in your system now. This test looks for Hepatitis C genetic material in your blood. If this comes back as not detected, then this means your body cleared the infection on its own, even though you may have been exposed the HCV at some point. If it is positive, then there is another test done to measure the amount of the virus present in your blood, a measurement called the “viral load.” This test is used to monitor your body’s response to treatment. It’s a test that will be used to before, during and after treatment.
If you test positive, your doctor will do a test to determine the strain of virus you have. There are six strains (called genotypes) of Hepatitis C found around the globe. According to the CDC around 75% of Americans have Genotype 1, 10% have Genotype 2 and 6% have Genotype 3. Knowing your genotype helps your doctor choose the best treatment for you because the different strains of the virus respond better to different types of treatment.
The exciting news is that we now have treatments that can suppress and even wipe out the disease, and early treatment can help you prevent liver cancer, cirrhosis, or liver failure. And that’s great news because up until the past couple of years, 60 out of a 100 people with HVC developed chronic liver disease, 20 out of 100 developed cirrhosis, and 5 out of 100 will die from liver cancer or liver failure. Getting tested and treated early can stop the Hepatitis C virus from doing long term damage, so give us a call to set up your test today! Also, be sure to check into our Facebook page, where we will be writing about some of the treatment options available today.