As far as viruses go, hepatitis C is among the sneakiest. Once it's in your blood, it travels to your liver, where it may settle in for a silent, long-term stay. This can lead to liver cancer or liver failure you don't treat it. In fact, hepatitis C is the top reason for liver transplants in the U.S.
If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis C, here are five reasons to get tested promptly:
Many people with hepatitis go undiagnosed, because the disease is mistaken for the flu or because there are no symptoms at all. The most common symptoms of hepatitis are:
Loss of appetite
Muscle or joint aches
Nausea and vomiting
Less common symptoms include:
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
Altered mental state, stupor, or coma
1. You can have hepatitis C even if you feel fine.
Most people with hepatitis C don't know they have it. The infection usually becomes chronic, meaning the virus lives in the liver quietly for decades. It can take up to 30 years before symptoms develop. By then, your liver may be in serious trouble. That's why you need to get tested before there's any sign of trouble.
Testing is more important if:
You have ever injected drugs into your body.
You had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992.
You are HIV-positive.
You are on hemodialysis.
You have been exposed to blood on the job.
2. The hepatitis C test is quick and easy.
A simple blood test can tell if you've ever been infected with hepatitis C. The results usually come back in a few days, but some clinics have rapid tests that can be read in as little as 20 minutes. If the test comes back negative, you should still get tested again if there's a chance you were exposed to the virus in the last 6 months.
If the first test comes back positive, you were infected with hepatitis C at some point. A second test will check whether the original infection cleared up or became chronic (as it does in most people). If you have a chronic infection, you'll need to see a doctor who specializes in treating hepatitis.
3. You can protect your family and friends.
You can pass the hepatitis C virus to others through your blood, even if you don't have any symptoms. To prevent this, cover wounds carefully and avoid sharing:
Razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, or diabetes supplies
Needles for injecting drugs, or steroids
Tools for body piercings or tattoos
Hepatitis C doesn't spread through kissing, coughing, sneezing, or sharing eating utensils. It's rare, but the virus can be spread through unprotected sex.
4. Treatments can suppress or even wipe out the virus.
Hepatitis C is treated with a combination of antiviral medications. For many people, that gets rid of the virus completely, although these drugs can have serious side effects and don’t work for everyone. Two new medications for hep C were approved by the FDA in late 2013. They’re believed to be more effective, and have fewer side effects.
5. Early treatment can help you prevent liver cancer or liver failure.
According to the CDC, out of every 100 people with hepatitis C:
60-70 will develop chronic liver disease.
Up to 20 will develop cirrhosis, a dangerous scarring of the liver.
1-5 will die from liver cancer or liver failure.
Getting tested and treated early can stop the hepatitis C virus from triggering cirrhosis or cancer. Your doctor will be able to keep an eye on your liver for signs of trouble and begin treatment before you have serious damage.