What is Hepatitis C?
The term “hepatitis” means inflammation (or swelling) of the liver. When the liver is inflamed, it can have a harder time filtering and detoxifying your blood. Almost all the blood in your body passes through the liver where chemicals, poisons, and substances, such as prescription or over-the-counter drugs, street drugs, alcohol, and caffeine are broken down. A hepatitis virus is one that lives in liver cells and causes inflammation. Different hepatitis viruses have been given different names, such as A, B, and C.
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus called the hepatitis C virus, or HCV for short. According to published studies, almost 4 million people in the United States have hepatitis C. Veterans using VA facilities have higher rates of hepatitis C than the general population.
Talk with your healthcare provider about being tested if any of the following are true for you. If you:
- Wish to be tested
- Have ever used a needle to inject drugs, even if once and long ago
- Had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Are a health care worker who had blood exposure to mucous membranes or to non-intact skin, or a needle stick injury
- Were on long-term kidney dialysis
- Were born of a mother who had hepatitis C at the time
- Are a Vietnam-era Veteran
- Had contact with hepatitis-C-positive blood to non-intact skin or to mucous membranes
- Have tattoos or body piercings in non-regulated settings
- Have ever snorted drugs or shared equipment
- Have liver disease or abnormal liver function test
- Have a history of alcohol abuse
- Have hemophilia and received clotting factor before 1987
- Have had a sexual partner with Hepatitis C, now or in the past
- Have had 10 or more lifetime sexual partners
- Have HIV infection
If you are at risk for hepatitis C, you should consider getting tested. You have to get blood tests to find out if you have HCV because the symptoms of hepatitis infection often are very mild. In fact, you may not have any symptoms at all.
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C, you can begin to get the health care and support you need. You will need to learn how to take care of your liver and yourself. You will also need to learn how to avoid giving the virus to others. Because it stays in your body, you can give the hepatitis C virus to others (such as family members and sexual partners)
What tests are done to diagnosis hepatitis C?
There are usually only two blood tests that need to be done to determine if you have chronic hepatitis C.
The first test your doctor will perform is called an “antibody” test, to see if your body has developed antibodies to HCV. Antibodies are particles your body makes to fight off infections. This test is sometimes called an anti-HCV test. A positive antibody result means that, at some point in your life, you were exposed to the hepatitis C virus, and you developed antibodies to fight off the virus. Another name for this antibody test isEIA. But just having a positive antibody test does not mean you have chronic hepatitis C infection.
If your hepatitis C antibody test is positive, then your doctor will perform a second test to see if you still have the hepatitis C virus in your body. This test is called a hepatitis Cviral load test or RNA test. If this test is positive, you have chronic hepatitis C, and you may eventually have health problems from the virus.
You do not need a liver biopsy to determine if you have hepatitis C.
If a person exposed to hepatitis C becomes infected, virus particles (called HCV RNA) can be detected within 1-2 weeks. Liver function tests also will tend to rise during this timeframe. Hepatitis C antibodies appear after RNA is detectable and can take 3-12 weeks to appear.
Can test results be wrong?
Yes. But this is rare.
A “false-positive” test means your antibody test shows that you have been exposed to hepatitis C, when in fact you haven’t been. For this reason, your doctor will perform other tests to double- or triple-check your results.
A “false-negative” test means your results suggest that you have not been exposed to hepatitis C, when in fact you have been. One reason someone could have a false-negative result is that they have been infected with hepatitis C recently and haven’t developed enough antibodies for the test to detect them. Or sometimes people with other conditions, such as HIV, will have hepatitis C but their antibody test is falsely negative.
How is it treated?
The usual treatment is rest and a healthy diet and lifestyle. Your healthcare provider will recommend that you avoid alcohol for at least 6 months.
Usually it is not necessary to stay at the hospital.
If you keep having symptoms or your liver function tests remain abnormal, you may be given antiviral drugs to slow or stop the virus from damaging the liver. You may be treated with more than 1 drug. The goal of treatment is not just to make you feel better, but to try to prevent damage to your liver. You may get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B to prevent more damage to your liver by these other types of hepatitis.
Doctors are continuing to search for the best ways to treat hepatitis C. As new information becomes available, treatments change. You should discuss possible new treatments with your healthcare provider.
What can be done to help prevent the spread of hepatitis C?
There are no shots that protect against hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, you can help prevent its spread by following these guidelines:
- Don’t let others come in contact with your blood; for example, when you have a bloody nose or a cut.
- Clean any blood stains with a mixture of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water.
- Cover your cuts and open sores.
- Do not share anything that might have blood on it, such as needles, toothbrushes, or razor blades.
- Practice safe sex.
- Do not donate blood, body organs, other tissues, or sperm.