Hepatitis C is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus. About 3.2 million people in the U.S. are infected with hepatitis C, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, most don't know they have it because the virus causes few symptoms.
There are at least six different subtypes of the hepatitis C virus. While no one type is more dangerous than another, they do respond differently to treatment. Hepatitis C type 1 is the most common type in the U.S. Unfortunately, the medications we have don't work as well with type 1 as with other subtypes of the virus.
Because hepatitis C doesn't always cause symptoms, you may not know you have the virus. Routine screening for hepatitis C is not typically performed unless you think you have come in to contact with a person infected with hepatitis C or if you were born between 1945 and 1965 (baby boomer screening). If you think you may have hepatitis C, your health care provider can test for it with a blood test.
The CDC recommends that you have a blood test for hepatitis C if any of the following are true:
When hepatitis C symptoms are present, they may include:
Jaundice (a condition causing yellow eyes and skin, as well as dark urine)
Loss of appetite
How Is Hepatitis C Transmitted?
Hepatitis C is transmitted when the blood or body fluids from an infected person enters the body of a person who is not immune to the disease.
It can be spread by:
Having sex with an infected person without a condom (though experts don't know if condoms prevent transmission or just reduce it).
Sharing drugs and needles.
Being cut by infected needles (health care workers).
Birth from a mother to a child.
Hepatitis C is not spread through food, water, or by casual contact.
Who Is at Risk for Hepatitis C?
People at higher risk of hepatitis C infection include:
Injecting drug users, even just one time.
Kidney dialysis patients
Recipients of blood or organ transplants before 1992
People with undiagnosed liver problems
Infants born to infected mothers
How Is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?
There are several blood tests available to determine if you are infected with the hepatitis C virus.
Are There Any Long-Term Effects of Hepatitis C?
Yes. In those infected with hepatitis C, 75% to 85% may develop a long-term infection. Hepatitis C is one of the top reasons that people need a liver transplant.
What's the Treatment for Hepatitis C?
If a person infected with hepatitis C shows signs of liver damage, the doctor will recommend treatment with medication.
For years, the standard hepatitis C treatment was a combination of injected interferon alpha (Intron A) and the oral antiviral drug ribavirin (Copegus or Rebetol). A combination form of these drugs is also available, called Rebetron.
More recently, another form of interferon -- peginterferon, or pegylated interferon (Pegasys or PEG Intron) -- has become the standard of care. Interferon is a man-made version of certain natural proteins that fight viruses. Peginterferon, or pegylated interferon, is modified so that it stays in the body longer than standard interferon. Because the drug stays at more constant levels in the body, patients need only one injection a week instead of three.