Hepatitis C | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

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Hepatitis C

Overview and Facts about Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a highly contagious infection of the liver, an organ that functions to maintain digestive health by helping your body process and store nutrients while removing toxins from the blood. The hepatitis C virus causes inflammation of the liver, which may lead to permanent liver damage.

One of several forms of hepatitis viruses, hepatitis C is a severe viral infection that is spread through exposure to contaminated blood. Until recently, there was no cure for hepatitis C infection. Today, hepatitis C can be treated, and potentially cured, with oral medications.

Symptoms and Signs of Hepatitis C

Signs and symptoms of hepatitis C may not appear until decades after the virus is contracted, and may only appear after the infection has caused substantial damage to your liver. Short-lived (acute) hepatitis C may show signs earlier, including jaundice, fever, fatigue, muscle aches and nausea, but these symptoms may only last up to 3 months.

Signs and symptoms of chronic hepatitis C include:

  • Abdominal swelling due to fluid buildup
  • Bleeding or bruising easily
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • Jaundice, or yellowing eyes or skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Spider-like blood vessels on your skin​
  • Sudden nausea or vomiting
  • Weight loss

Causes and Risk Factors of Hepatitis C

The hepatitis C virus is spread through contaminated blood and causes inflammation of the liver. During the inflammation process, healthy cells are damaged, thereby reducing the liver’s ability to break down nutrients and filter out toxins. A person’s digestive health may be severely impaired if the hepatitis C infection becomes chronic, and long-lasting liver inflammation can lead to serious complications, such as cirrhosis, cancer or liver failure.

Risk factors for contracting hepatitis C include:

  • Being exposed to infected blood
  • Having been born to a woman with hepatitis C
  • Having been born between 1945 and 1965  ​
  • Having HIV
  • Having tattoos or piercings done with unsterile equipment
  • Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
  • Receiving clotting factors before 1987
  • Receiving long-term hemodialysis treatments
  • Unprotected sex with an infected partner
  • Using shared needles to inject drugs

Tests and Diagnosis of Hepatitis C

Because the hepatitis C infection can stay dormant for decades, doctors recommend high-risk patients be screened for the virus. A blood test will be used to identify the presence of the hepatitis C virus in your blood and assess liver function. In addition, a liver biopsy (a small tissue sample) and imaging tests (ultrasound, MRI or CT scans) may be used to evaluate the extent of liver damage in patients with confirmed hepatitis C.

Treatment and Care for Hepatitis C

Antiviral medications are used to treat hepatitis C and can potentially clear the virus from your body. New medications that act directly on the virus provide better outcomes, shorter treatment times and fewer side-effects. While there is no hepatitis C vaccine, doctors may recommend vaccination for hepatitis A and B viruses to reduce the risk of further liver damage.

If serious complications develop, your doctor may recommend you monitor your digestive health and avoid alcohol use (which can cause further liver damage). A liver transplant surgery may be required in the event of liver failure.