By Dr. Nwanguma, MD, Infectious Disease
What is Hepatitis?
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver that can progress to liver damage. There are many different causes, including infections, heavy alcohol consumption, and certain medications or medical conditions. Viruses that primarily attack the liver are referred to as hepatitis viruses of which there are several types; A, B, C, D, E. In the United States, the most common types of viral hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
Symptoms: Infection with the hepatitis virus can cause acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) hepatitis. Acute hepatitis usually causes symptoms like dark urine and jaundice that resolves over time. However, in rare cases, fulminant hepatic failure or severe liver injury can occur. In addition, hepatitis C can cause chronic hepatitis, which often cause mild and non-specific symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose. Over time chronic hepatitis may lead to permanent liver damage, known as cirrhosis, or liver cancer. The good news is there are now treatments for chronic hepatitis that did not exist several years ago.
Diagnosis and Prevention: Hepatitis C infection can be identified through blood tests which are ordered based on a person’s risk factors. There is an estimated 2.5 million people living with hepatitis C in the U.S., and more than half of those infected, do not know.
While anyone can contract hepatitis C, people born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to get it. That’s why the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone born between those years get tested via a simple blood test.
Though there are highly effective vaccines for the prevention of hepatitis A and B; unfortunately, currently there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
How is Hepatitis C Contracted?
Hepatitis C is most commonly spread when blood (even in tiny amount) from an infected person enters the body of someone who is not infected. People can become infected with the hepatitis C from:
• Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to prepare or inject drugs
• Needlestick injuries in health care settings
• Being born to a mother who has hepatitis C
Less commonly, a person can contract hepatitis C through:
• Sharing personal care items that may have come in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
• Engaging in sexual contact with a person infected with the hepatitis C virus
• Getting a tattoo or body piercing in an unregulated setting
Hepatitis C is not spread through shared eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. They usually also cannot be spread through food or water.
Over time the chronic inflammation caused by the hepatitis C virus can lead to permanent liver damage. In fact, hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver disease, liver transplants and liver cancer. Knowing you have this infection can help you make important decisions about your health. Further, successful treatment can eliminate the virus from the body and prevent liver damage, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer.
Hepatitis C treatments have improved in recent years. Current treatments usually involve just 8-12 weeks of oral therapy (pills) and cure over 95% of people with few or no side effects.
Dr. Nwanguma received his medical residency at the Atlanta Medical Center’s Internal Medicine department. He obtained a fellowship from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. Victor is board certified in Internal Medicine and Infectious Disease. His areas of special interest include HIV and general disease management.