is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a
disease caused by infection with the hepatitis C
The virus causes liver
which interferes with proper liver function. Hepatitis C can
eventually lead to severe, permanent liver damage and
and may be complicated by liver cancer. Because the initial
symptoms are mild, hepatitis C often goes unnoticed until years
later when liver damage is discovered.
There are six major strains, or genotypes, of hepatitis C.
Genotype 1 is the most common type in the United States. Types
1, 2 and 3 are found worldwide; type 4 is found throughout
Africa, 5 is common in South Africa, and 6 is common in Asia.
What causes hepatitis C infection?
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). This virus
enters the body through infected blood (much less commonly
through other body fluids) and then multiplies in liver cells.
What are the symptoms?
Most infections begin with a sudden (acute) illness, often so
mild that you may not notice symptoms. Many people with acute
illness will go on to develop long-term (chronic) infection.
1 Hepatitis C is considered chronic when the liver is
inflamed for longer than 6 months.
In cases of acute infection, young children usually have
no symptoms. Older children and adults may develop mild
as fatigue, headache, sore muscles, abdominal pain
(specifically, pain in the
quadrant), and dark urine. In some cases,
condition in which the skin and whites of the eyes appear
yellow—may also develop, but this is uncommon in acute hepatitis
In cases of chronic infection, most people, especially
young children, have no symptoms. If symptoms develop, they may
include fatigue, mild abdominal discomfort, dry skin and
itching, and a general sense of not feeling well (malaise).
How is Hepatitis C diagnosed?
Hepatitis C is diagnosed with blood tests that look for signs of
to the hepatitis C virus, and its genetic material.
may be performed to see whether the virus has scarred or damaged
the liver, help determine the most appropriate treatment, and
see whether treatment is successful.
How is it treated?
Chronic HCV infection may be treated with medications that fight
viral infections. The current standard treatment combines two
antiviral medications: peginterferon and ribavirin. However,
this treatment is not an option for everyone because of its
significant side effects or because of
continuing problems with
abuse, psychological conditions (such as
schizophrenia) that interfere with the ability to
take scheduled medications, or financial constraints (the
medications are expensive).
A new form of interferon, called peginterferon, combined with
ribavirin stops the virus more effectively than standard
interferon and ribavirin.
2 As a result,
the combination of peginterferon and ribavirin has become the
new standard of treatment.
Your response to treatment depends in part on which of the six
hepatitis genotypes you have—and you may be infected with more
than one genotype. Genotype 1 does not respond as well to
treatment as the less-common genotypes 2 and 3. Other factors,
such as the amount of virus in your system (viral load) and
whether your liver has been scarred or damaged, may also affect
how well you respond to treatment.
How is Hepatitis C spread?
The incubation period (the time it takes for the first
symptoms to appear) is about 2 weeks to 6 months.
Anyone who tests positive for the hepatitis C virus (HCV)
is presumed to be contagious.
HCV spreads through contact with blood, most commonly by sharing
needles and other equipment used to inject drugs. Health care
workers face a low risk (less than 2%) of infection from
accidental needle sticks and other occupational exposures.
The virus can spread through sexual contact, but the risk is
low, especially for long-term monogamous couples. Risk increases
for those who have multiple sex partners. Having a sexually
transmitted disease or being infected with
may increase the risk of becoming infected with HCV.
In the past, the virus was spread through infected blood used in
transfusions and infected solid organs used in transplantation.
However, the risk of infection from these procedures is now
extremely low; since around 1990, blood and organs have been
routinely screened for hepatitis C.
While the risk is low, an infected mother can spread the virus
to her baby at birth. The risk of transmitting the disease to
the baby can be greater if the mother is also infected with HIV.