You might think that hepatitis C only happens in adults, but children get the liver disease, too. Most kids get it when they're newborns, but teens who inject illicit drugs or have unsafe sex can also catch it. Your child's doctor can suggest treatments to manage or even cure the disease.
When Your Baby Has Hepatitis C
There are tests available when your child is 3 months old, but many experts don't recommend them because babies can't be treated until they're older.
Signs that your child has hepatitis C are:
- Dark, brownish pee
- Pale, clay-colored bowel movements
- Stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes)
- Swelling in the legs
Your doctor may suggest your child get blood tests to diagnose hepatitis C. They're the same tests used in adults, but they're only done in kids over the age of 2:
HCV-RNA test or qualitative HCV test. This measures whether active hepatitis C virus is in your child's bloodstream.
Quantitative HCV test or viral load test. It checks the amount of the virus in the blood. You'll get results that are measured in international units per liter (IU/L). Lower numbers mean the disease is easier to get under control.
Viral genotyping. This test shows which kind of hepatitis C, called a "genotype," is causing your child's infection.
Keep in mind that HCV takes time to show symptoms, and 80% of people with the disease don't have any symptoms. Indeed, they may go years without signs of illness.
Hepatitis C in Kids Up to Age 12
Hepatitis C goes away without treatment 40% of the time before a child's second birthday. The virus has disappeared in some kids as old as 7.
If your child still has hepatitis C after they turn 2, you may hear your doctor call it a "chronic" infection. For most, the disease causes minor liver problems. About 25% of kids have a higher chance of getting scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis. Most of the time that doesn't happen until the child becomes an adult.
If your child needs treatment, your doctor may suggest these medicines:
Interferon and ribavirin. Studies show it will end a hepatitis C infection in 50% to 90% of cases. It's the only treatment approved for children under 12. Your child may have side effects that include fatigue, fever, chills, and depression.
Your doctor will likely recommend that your child get hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines, as well as a regular flu shot. Ask your doctor about medicines to avoid because they can cause liver damage, such as acetaminophen.
Most kids with hepatitis C live active, normal lives, including playing sports and joining social activities. The disease can't be spread by casual contact. But because the virus can pass to others through blood and bodily fluids, your child shouldn't share personal items such as toothbrushes and nail clippers with other kids. And make sure they keep wounds such as cuts and scrapes covered.
Teens With Hepatitis C
If your child wasn't born with hepatitis C but got the illness in the teenage years, it likely happened from using unclean needles when injecting illicit drugs, having unsafe sex, or by coming into contact with infected blood. Up to 100,000 Americans between 12 and 19 have hepatitis C.
Without treatment, teens with hepatitis C can get cirrhosis. Although adults have a wide choice of antiviral drugs, the FDA has approved two for kids age 12 to 17:
Ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni). It's a combination antiviral drug that makes the virus disappear in up to 95% of children who use it. Your child may get side effects like diarrhea, feeling tired, or trouble sleeping.