Hepatitis C

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Your doctor has determined that you have hepatitis C, a liver disease caused by infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV). In the U.S., hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood-transmitted disease, with some 4 million people infected with HCV and more than 25,000 new cases each year.

About the Condition

The liver is the body's largest internal organ, typically the size of a football and weighing about three pounds. Located in the upper-right region of the abdomen, the liver is divided into two main sections, or lobes. It serves as a complex chemical factory, controlling many essential functions that include detoxifying the blood, fighting infection, processing nutrients from digested food, storing energy for the body and producing substances that make blood clot during bleeding (clotting factors).

Hepatitis C occurs when the liver becomes inflamed due to infection with HCV. Most people who contract hepatitis C do not have any initial symptoms. Sometimes they may experience mild fatigue, fever, headache, nausea or abdominal pain.

The hepatitis C virus is usually transmitted through direct contact with the blood of an infected person. People who are often near medical instruments, blood or needles are at the greatest risk for acquiring HCV, such as injection drug users and healthcare workers.

Sometimes hepatitis C is spread through unprotected sexual contact, by sharing a razor or toothbrush with an HCV-infected person or from mother to baby. Other more remote risk factors for the condition include inhaled cocaine use, tattooing and body piercing.

In addition, people who received long-term kidney dialysis, clotting factors made before 1987 or a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992 are at an increased risk.

Occasionally people with HCV spontaneously clear the infection in its early stages; however, up to 85% of patients have a chronic, or life-long, infection. The disease usually progresses slowly and can cause permanent liver damage over a period of 20–30 years. About one out of five hepatitis C patients develop cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver.

Liver failure and liver cancer are end-stage complications of hepatitis C that can arise, most often in patients with cirrhosis. Nearly half of all liver transplants in the U.S. are performed on patients with end-stage hepatitis C.

Treatment Options

Antiviral medications are often used to treat hepatitis C, but they are not suitable for all patients. Your doctor will monitor your condition and determine what is most appropriate for your specific case. You may need a liver biopsy to check the extent of damage to your liver.

Two main drugs are used to treat hepatitis C — pegylated interferon and ribavirin. Sometimes interferon is used alone, but most often it is prescribed together with ribavirin. This combination therapy is generally considered the treatment of choice for hepatitis C.

To establish the best individual treatment plan before starting drug therapy, it is important to determine which hepatitis C genetic category, or genotype, a patient carries. There are six distinct HCV genotypes, with genotype 1 being the most common in the U.S. It is possible for a person to be infected with more than one genotype at the same time.

What You Can Do

You can choose to take an active role in your health and well-being. Learn as much as you can about your condition and see your doctor on a regular basis. You may also want to join a support group for people with hepatitis C. Other steps you can take to maximize your health include:

•  Eating a healthy diet and avoiding alcohol, which can speed up liver damage
•  Having smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day
•  Getting enough sleep every night
•  Routinely taking part in some form of exercise
•  Keeping a positive attitude
•  Handling tiring tasks in the morning when your energy level is higher

To protect those around you from getting hepatitis C, you should:

•  Avoid sharing personal items that may carry traces of your blood, such as razors, toothbrushes and nail clippers
•  Cover any cuts or sores that you may have
•  Tell all of your health care providers (including dentist) that you have the condition
•  Abstain from donating blood, organs or other bodily tissues and fluids
•  Use latex condoms during sex, especially if not in a long-term, monogamous relationship

It may be necessary to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. (There is no vaccine available for hepatitis C.) In addition, you should consult your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications, dietary supplement or herbs.

Additional Resources

American Liver Foundation, 800.465-4837, http://www.liverfoundation.org/
Hepatitis Foundation International, 800.891.0707, http://www.hepfi.org/
Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 800.891.5389, http://www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov/

This patient resource sheet is provided to you as a service of CBLPath® and is intended for information purposes only. It may not fully describe all aspects of your diagnosis and is not meant to serve as medical advice or a substitute for professional medical care. Your physician can provide you with a thorough explanation of your diagnosis and appropriate treatment options, which may vary. Only you and your physician can determine your best treatment plan.

Updated 9.07