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Natalie Cole's Hepatitis C: FAQ

Questions and Answers About Natalie Cole's Hepatitis C and 'Chemotherapy'

How common is hepatitis C?

The CDC estimates that 3.2 million people in the U.S have chronic hepatitis C infection, a long-term illness that happens when the virus remains in a person's body. Most of those people don't know that they have it because they don't look or feel sick, the CDC's web site states.

An estimated 19,000 people in the U.S. have acute hepatitis C infection, which is a short-term illness that happens within six months of being exposed to the hepatitis C virus.

 

Does hepatitis C make you sick right away?

Not usually. Natalie Cole told Entertainment Tonight that the hepatitis C virus had been "dormant" in her body for 25 years. And that's not rare.

"Patients can be without symptoms and even with normal liver tests for 25 or 30 years. That's very common, in fact," Bruce R. Bacon, MD, director of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at St. Louis University School of Medicine, tells WebMD.

Bacon, who isn't treating Cole, prefers the word "inactive" rather than "dormant" to describe the virus when it's not causing obvious symptoms.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C usually doesn't cause any symptoms. But when symptoms occur, the CDC says they may include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes)

"The most common symptom is probably no symptoms. But the next most common symptom would be fatigue. People just feel tired and worn out," says Bacon.

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

Hepatitis C is diagnosed by a blood test.

If you have any risk factors for hepatitis C, get tested, and if you find out you have hepatitis C, see a specialist, Bacon suggests.

Don't let stigma about drug use or other risk factors stand in your way. "We just need to move beyond that and find out what's going on," says Bacon.

How is hepatitis C treated?

Hepatitis C is treated with two drugs: long-acting interferon (called pegylated interferon or peginterferon) and ribavirin.

Pegintereferon "gets the immune system to handle the virus a little more effectively," says Bacon. Ribavirin is an antiviral medicine, "but it doesn't work against hepatitis C alone; it only works in conjunction with interferon."

New treatments are in the works. "Those new treatments are a class of drugs called protease inhibitors," says Bacon, singling out two protease inhibitors -- telapravir and boceprevir -- as being "far along in development."

Is Natalie Cole really getting chemotherapy for hepatitis C?

The chemotherapy that you'd get for cancer isn't used to treat hepatitis C. But Bacon says hepatitis C treatment can have side effects "that are akin to what patients experience when they receive cancer chemotherapy." That includes temporary hair loss.

The peginterferon-ribavirin combination is "sometimes loosely called chemotherapy," says Bacon. "I don't like to give it that negative connotation, to try to keep things positive for patients. So I call it treatment for their viral infection or antiviral therapy."

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