Hepatitis C is an infectious disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The hepatitis C virus attacks and inflames the liver. Hepatitis C has an acute and chronic form. Because the virus is highly mutable, it is difficult for the body to identify and clear it as it would other viruses; as a result most hepatitis C patients develop the chronic infection.
Acute: is a short-term, mild illness lasting a few weeks. It is generally asymptomatic. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.
Chronic: is a serious lifelong condition that can progress to liver cirrhosis (scarring), liver failure, or liver cancer. The longer the patient has the infection, the greater the risk of liver damage.
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease.
Hepatitis C is a bloodborne disease spread by direct contact with infected blood. The most common methods of transmission include sharing needles used to inject drugs, needle-stick accidents in a health care setting, and blood transfusions. Less common transmission methods include sexual contact, use of personal care items such as toothbrushes and razors, or passage from an infected mother to her newborn baby at birth. Hepatitis C is not spread by casual contact.
Most people infected with the hepatitis C virus have no symptoms. Typically most patients are unaware that they have a hepatitis C infection until liver damage is discovered or until a routine blood test for some other reason uncovers the disease. When symptoms occur, they are generally mild and flu-like and may include fatigue, fever, nausea or poor appetite, joint and muscle pain, or tenderness over the liver area.
Diagnosis of hepatitis C is done by blood test. Diagnosis of chronic infection is made when hepatitis C virus antibodies are present in the blood for more than six months. Specialized tests are often used to evaluate patients for liver disease, including liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Liver enzymes and other blood tests that evaluate liver function are often used to help monitor the disease. A liver biopsy may be recommended to examine the liver tissue for damage.
The current standard treatment for hepatitis C is antiviral combination therapy consisting of the drugs interferon and ribavirin. However, treatment of chronic hepatitis C is individual; certain patients may not benefit from treatment while others may not tolerate treatment protocols.
If the liver is significantly damaged, a liver transplant may be recommended. Treatment with antiviral medications will continue after a liver transplant, since hepatitis C infection is likely to recur in the new liver.
Vaccination against the hepatitis A and B viruses may also be recommended as subsequent contraction of these diseases compromises liver function and may complicate treatment.