Victoria Louwagie, P.A.-C.
Gastroenterology & Hepatology (Digestive Care)
Speaking of HealthFood intolerance or food allergy?February 13, 2018
If a simple blood test could improve your long-term health or possibly save your life, would you have it done? The answer for most people is a resounding “Yes.” Testing for hepatitis C, which entails a basic blood draw and analysis, can be the difference between serious health complications later in life or a manageable — curable in most cases when treated — condition.
Let’s explore questions and answers to help you understand more about chronic hepatitis C.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that targets the liver, leading to inflammation and scaring if untreated. Several hepatitis viruses exist, but hepatitis C is one of the most serious forms. Hepatitis A, B and C are different diseases.
Passed through contact with contaminated blood, hepatitis C often is contracted by sharing needles or snorting drugs. However, receiving a blood transfusion, clotting factor or organ transplant before 1992, getting piercings or tattoos in an unsterile environment, and having a history of incarceration, among other things, also are risks for contracting hepatitis C.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Many people with hepatitis C don’t know they have the infection. Symptoms typically don’t appear until years later in the course of chronic infection.
Signs of chronic infection include:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Itchy skin
- Fluid accumulation in your abdomen
- Swelling in the legs
- Weight loss
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech
- Spider-like blood vessels on your skin
Because symptoms usually don’t appear until after hepatitis C has caused years of liver damage, the importance of screening is vital.
Who should be tested for hepatitis C?
Consider a hepatitis C test if you:
- Were born between 1945–1965 (this population includes the highest rate of infection in the general public)
- Have injected or snorted drugs (current user or history of use)
- Had a tattoo done in an unprofessional and/or unsterile environment
- Were ever incarcerated
- Received a blood transfusion, organ transplant or clotting factor prior to 1992
As of March 2020, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for all adults aged 18–79.
Talk to your health care provider if you have questions or concerns about being tested for hepatitis C.
What are potential complications of hepatitis C?
Left untreated or undetected, hepatitis C can cause serious complications, such as:
Is treatment available for hepatitis C?
Again, diagnosing hepatitis C infection early is integral to optimal long-term health. Antiviral medications are available to treat and eliminate hepatitis C from your body. Older forms of these medications, which required patients to be on a regimen for 24–72 weeks, often elicited serious side effects, including depression, flu-like symptoms and loss of healthy blood cells. New antiviral medications, on the other hand, are oral pills with low risk of side effects and much better cure rates. New therapies also can be as short as eight weeks.
Overall, the new treatments are highly superior to older agents, which excluded people with mental illness or history of suicide. Newer agents have little exclusion criteria. People who were barred from treatment in the past now can possibly be treated and cured. If a person underwent treatment in the past and was not cured, they should be re-evaluated.
Your health care team may recommend lifestyle changes to keep you and others healthy if you are diagnosed with hepatitis C. Common measures are refraining from consuming alcohol, avoiding medications that may cause liver damage and taking extra precautions to protect others from contact with your blood.
If you're at risk of hepatitis C, talk to your health care provider about testing. Identifying and treating health issues early helps improve your well-being for years to come.