Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver which is often spread through sharing needles used to inject drugs, but in some cases is passed through sexual contact. There usually aren’t any symptoms of the infection until it has caused serious damage to the liver, which is why it’s important to get tested if you are at risk. If hepatitis C develops into a chronic infection, it can lead to serious health problems.
Hepatitis C Statistics
In the United States, an estimated 2.7 million to 3.9 million people have chronic hepatitis C, and about 75% of them are Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1965. Hepatitis C is the most common chronic infection caused by a blood-borne virus in the U.S.
How Is Hepatitis C Spread?
Needles are the main cause of hepatitis C transmission. Today, it’s most commonly spread through sharing needles or other equipment used to prepare or inject drugs. However, you can also get hepatitis C from needlestick injuries or getting a tattoo or piercing in an unsanitary setting.
Although it’s not as common, hepatitis C can be transmitted through sexual contact. Having multiple partners or rough sex may increase the risk of transmission, but it’s still relatively rare. One of the main risk factors for getting sexually transmitted hepatitis C is having HIV or another sexually transmitted infection, so it’s important to get tested for HIV and STIs whenever you have a new partner or are unsure of a partner’s status.
You can’t get hepatitis C from other types of contact, like hugging, kissing, or holding hands. It also doesn’t spread through coughing, sneezing, or sharing utensils. In rare cases, people can get hepatitis C by sharing personal care items with someone with hepatitis C, or by being born to a mother with the infection.
What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?
There are two types of hepatitis C:
- Acute hepatitis C is a short-term infection. It develops in the first six months after exposure to the virus.
- Chronic hepatitis C is a long-term infection. It occurs when an acute hepatitis C infection is left untreated.
Around 75% to 85% of people with acute hepatitis C will develop chronic hepatitis C. Part of the reason that an acute hepatitis C infection often develops into a chronic one is that many people don’t experience symptoms with a new infection. When symptoms do occur, they are often mild and may include dark urine, clay-colored stool, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, fever, and joint pain.
Chronic hepatitis C also doesn’t cause symptoms in most cases. If someone does experience symptoms, they are often similar to those of an acute infection.
Unfortunately, a chronic infection can cause serious damage to the liver over time. Chronic hepatitis C infections may lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer, or liver failure.
How Do I Know if I Have Hepatitis C?
Most people don’t find out they have hepatitis C until they develop liver problems, receive abnormal blood test results, or are screened for blood donation. However, a simple blood test called the Hepatitis C Antibody Test can be used to see if someone has it.
Hepatitis C testing is recommended for everyone, especially for those who have an increased risk for the infection, such as injection drug users, baby boomers, and people with HIV. You can test for Hep C at home using the Full Control Kit, one of the STI Home Test Kits from Nurx.
How Is Hepatitis C Treated?
A patient with acute hepatitis C may receive medication or may simply be monitored to see if the infection becomes chronic.
Antiviral medications are available for those who develop chronic hepatitis C. Over 90% of people who take the prescribed pills for eight to 12 weeks are cured with few side effects. Those who have already developed cirrhosis from hepatitis C will need continued monitoring for potential complications even if their infection has been cleared.
How Can I Prevent Hepatitis C?
There is no vaccine available for Hepatitis C, but you can help prevent infection by not sharing needles or equipment to inject drugs, avoiding sharing personal grooming tools such as razors, nail clippers, or toothbrushes, and only getting tattoos and piercings with sterile equipment. During sex, use a latex or polyurethane condom to protect yourself from Hep C and other STIs.
Although chronic Hep C can be serious, the sooner you know you have it, the sooner you can start taking effective treatments. As with other STIs, knowledge is power and testing lets you know your status.
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