Hepatitis C (HCV) is an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver and leads to inflammation. There are several different types of hepatitis viruses and hepatitis C is considered to be among the most serious. Hepatitis can be either acute or chronic. Hepatitis C is chronic, meaning once a person has hepatitis C he or she will always have the virus. Since it is chronic, hepatitis C may cause liver damage and may eventually cause liver cancer. Some people who have extensive scarring and liver damage (cirrhosis) may eventually require a liver transplant.
A person may contract hepatitis C by having contact with an infected person’s blood. Examples include:
- Blood transfusions and organ transplants before 1992.
- Shared needles – (using IV drugs and sharing needles)
- Childbirth – a small number of babies born to mothers with hepatitis C get the infection during childbirth
- Having unprotected sex with an infected person.
Hepatitis C usually produces no signs or symptoms during the earliest stages. When signs and symptoms do occur, they are generally mild and flu-like and may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle and joint pains
- Tenderness in the liver area.
Since most people with Hepatitis C do not know that they have it, they usually go undiagnosed until a doctor notices that they have abnormal liver enzymes through blood tests commonly done during a physical. A liver biopsy may also be done to help make the diagnosis.
Many patients with hepatitis C benefit from treatment with medications. The most common medications are a combination of pegylated interferon alfa and ribavirin, an antiviral medication. People who develop cirrhosis or liver cancer may be candidates for a liver transplant.