Liver Disease:

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. Like hepatitis B, hepatitis C can range from mild to severe. Hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of a person infected with this virus. Most commonly, this happens through sharing needles or getting a tattoo or piercing with equipment that hasn't been sterilized. Prior to 1992, people could contract hepatitis C through blood transfusions or organ transplants, since the process of screening for hepatitis C didn't become widespread in the U.S. until 1992.

Hepatitis C can be either acute or chronic. Acute hepatitis C occurs within six months of exposure to the virus. Symptoms are fairly rare, but if they do occur, they are similar to those of hepatitis B. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection. Since hepatitis C often goes undetected, a person may be infected for years without realizing it. In fact, many people find out they have hepatitis C by accident, when having blood tests done for some other reason. Unfortunately, permanent liver damage can occur before a person even knows he or she has hepatitis C.

People diagnosed with hepatitis C may need a liver biopsy to determine the extent of damage to their liver. Those with minimal damage may only need regular monitoring. Under the care of a liver specialist, many people with hepatitis C will be treated with antiviral medications, which clear the virus from the body. This usually involves taking a combination of medications over the course of several weeks, followed by a blood test to check for hepatitis C virus. If the Hepatitis C virus is still present, the person may need a second round of treatment. Side effects associated with antiviral medications include depression and flu-like symptoms.

As hepatitis C progresses, it can cause cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, or liver failure. Severe liver damage may necessitate a liver transplant.