Hepatitis C is a viral disease of the liver causing inflammation and damage to liver cells. It is caused by the hepatitis C virus, or HCV. The most common cause of hepatitis C is contact with infected blood, and is often acquired as a result of intravenous drug usage or bodily fluid exposure.
Over 3.5 million Americans carry the HCV virus, and an estimated 150,000 individuals become infected with the virus every year.
HCV is difficult for the body to combat and, as a result, about 85% of people who contract the virus will develop a chronic HCV infection.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Many patients who are infected with hepatitis C are unaware that they have the condition. Often, hepatitis C does not produce any symptoms, especially during the early stages of the disease. If symptoms do develop they are often mild, and may include nausea or fatigue.
Diagnosis of Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is often diagnosed during routine blood tests. Your physician may notice an elevation in certain liver enzymes, specifically an enzyme called the ALT. If your gastroenterologist notices an abnormality in blood work, then he may order a specific blood test to determine if the patient has hepatitis C.
The hepatitis C virus may take between 2 and 26 weeks to develop after the patient initially becomes infected with HCV. In many situations, patients are unaware that they have the disease and live with the condition for an extended period of time without any treatment.
If hepatitis C is revealed through blood work, then your physician will likely recommend an ultrasound or liver biopsy. Cirrhosis of the liver develops in approximately 20% of patients with hepatitis C. Serious liver damage may develop in patients with hepatitis C, but could take between 10 and 40 years to occur.
Treatment of Hepatitis C
If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C, then your physician will provide you with detailed instructions concerning treatment options as well as lifestyle factors that may be beneficial to you. In many situations, it is recommended that the patient avoid all alcohol use, as it is understood that even minimal amounts of alcohol can be damaging when liver disease is present, as can certain over the counter medications such as Tylenol, when taken excessively.
Your gastroenterologist may recommend that you become vaccinated against hepatitis viruses A and B to prevent further illness. Certain medications may be used to help strengthen the immune system to fight the hepatitis C virus.