Hepatitis C may not receive as much coverage in the media as other infectious diseases. Shockingly though, a pre-COVID study showed that it kills more Americans than any other infectious disease!

Hepatitis C is not just a killer in its own right. It can lead to other fatal complications. However, on the positive side, this disease is curable and preventable.  

Let’s take an in-depth look at hepatitis C. We’ll explore everything from hepatitis C symptoms to its causes, diagnosis, and how to treat it.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver disease. Its cause is the hepatitis C virus. This virus is commonly abbreviated to HCV. This virus is classified as a bloodborne pathogen. It is commonly transmitted through exposure to small amounts of blood from an infected individual.

Hepatitis C is common throughout the world. The HCV virus has multiple strains. Certain groups in society are more vulnerable to infection, especially those who inject drugs. 

There are two forms of hepatitis C – acute and chronic. 

Acute Hepatitis C

Acute hepatitis C is a short-term infection. It develops within 6 months of exposure to the HCV virus. It may produce hepatitis C symptoms such as vomiting and fatigue for a short time. However, not everyone with acute hepatitis C will have symptoms. It is possible to be infected and recover without having any symptoms.

The acute form often lasts for several months. It can resolve or improve with or without treatment. The danger with acute hepatitis C is that it leads to a chronic infection in most people. 

Chronic Hepatitis C

If you do not receive treatment for chronic hepatitis C, it can be a lifelong infection. It can lead to other liver diseases, including liver failure, cirrhosis, and cancer. All of these can prove fatal. 

There are almost 16,000 deaths resulting from hepatitis C reported each year. The true figure is probably much higher.

Identifying Hepatitis C Symptoms

During the acute phase, hepatitis C often produces no symptoms. For this reason, many people do not seek treatment. In less than half of all cases, the body will clear the virus without treatment. This is known as spontaneous viral clearance.

Acute Hepatitis C Symptoms

Those who do have symptoms will often experience jaundice, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and aching muscles. In the acute phase, if symptoms appear, they usually last between two weeks and three months. 

For those who do not receive treatment and whose bodies do not clear the virus, chronic hepatitis C will develop.

Chronic Hepatitis C Symptoms

There are often no symptoms in the early stages of hepatitis C infection. The symptoms only become apparent when the liver has already been damaged. 

The symptoms of liver disease resulting from HCV can include:

  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice – yellowing of skin and eyes
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Leg swelling
  • Ascites – fluid collecting in the abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Itching

Other signs of a hepatitis C infection can include confusion, drowsiness, and slurred speech. 

These are the general symptoms of liver disease. Hepatitis C is one of a number of causes of liver disease. A doctor will be able to diagnose whether hepatitis C is causing these symptoms through a blood test.

How Is Hepatitis C Transmitted?

As HCV is a bloodborne pathogen, it can only be spread when blood contaminated with HCV enters the bloodstream of an uninfected person. As the virus takes many different forms or genotypes, treatment options will vary. 

Hepatitis C can be transmitted by:

  • Sharing needles/syringes or other equipment when taking drugs
  • Giving birth – infected mothers can pass it to their baby
  • Exposure to contaminated blood in a healthcare setting
  • Sex with an infected person
  • Unhygienic tattoo or body piercing practices
  • Sharing personal items such as razors and toothbrushes
  • Blood transfusions and organ transplants, especially prior to 1992

Other contact with infected individuals such as hugging, breastfeeding, and kissing do not spread the HCV virus. It is also not spread by coughing or sneezing. If you are breastfeeding, cracked or bleeding nipples are a danger to your child. Wait until these have healed to continue breastfeeding.

Preventing the Spread of HCV

It is very important that those who work in health care settings are aware of the danger of hepatitis C and how to protect themselves. Bloodborne pathogen training gives staff members the tools they need to keep themselves and others safe. 

Knowledge is the key to preventing the spread of HCV. If you know that you have the virus, avoid engaging in any of the practices listed above that could spread it to others. If you are a close associate of someone who is infected, take practical steps to limit your risk of exposure.

If you have been successfully treated for hepatitis C, it is still possible to be infected again. If you engage in practices that put you at risk, it is important to be regularly tested, as the infection is often silent – without symptoms.

How is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?

It is very important to consult a doctor if you suspect that you may have hepatitis C. You might be worried because you suspect you have come in contact with an infected person’s blood. There are often no symptoms in the acute phase. Testing is essential to identify the presence of the pathogen.

Antibody Test

There are two types of tests for hepatitis C. The first test you will be given is an antibody test. This tests whether your body has produced antibodies to the virus. If you have been infected recently this may come back negative, as the body has not had time to produce antibodies to the virus.

If the test is positive, this means that you have been infected at some stage. It may not mean that you have the infection now. If your body has cleared the virus, some antibodies will still remain in your system.

PCR Test

The second test, a PCR blood test will detect whether the virus is still reproducing inside your body. This indicates that the body has not cleared the virus. If this is positive, further tests will reveal the extent of liver damage.

Further blood tests can reveal whether the liver is damaged or inflamed. An ultrasound scan can also show up cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver.

Who Needs a Hepatitis C Test?

As there is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C. It leads to the development of other serious illnesses. For these reasons, the CDC has made a number of recommendations regarding screening. Their first recommendation is that all persons born between 1945-1965 take a test for hepatitis C.

Their most recent recommendations are that all adults over 18 should have a test at least once in their lifetime. Also, all pregnant women should take a test during each pregnancy.

All those at risk need regular screening. Additionally, if you have ever been in prison, if you received treatment of hemophilia prior to 1987, or are HIV-positive, you should take a test for hepatitis C.

What Is the Treatment for Hepatitis C?

The good news for those infected with HCV is that it is highly curable with antiviral therapy. The purpose of these drugs is to clear the body of the virus by 12 weeks after completing treatment.

Medication regimens vary. The doctor treating you will take into account the hepatitis C genotype, other medical conditions, and extent of liver damage. Direct-acting antiviral (DAA) tablets are some of the safest and most effective treatments for HCV. 

The treatment normally lasts for 8 to 12 weeks. These drugs cure or achieve sustained virological responses in more than 95% of patients, and have limited side effects. Effective treatment of the hepatitis C virus reduces chronic HCV infection-related complications. 

The Future of Hepatitis C

More effective treatments are being developed against HCV. This is raising hopes for a future without all forms of hepatitis. This includes hepatitis C. There is ongoing research into a vaccine against hepatitis C.

Education on how the virus is transmitted can help those at risk to avoid infection. Regular screening can lead to earlier treatment. This results in better long-term outcomes for people who infected with the virus.

Learn More About Hepatitis C

Further training in bloodborne pathogens can save lives. Anyone at risk of contracting HCV should learn as much as possible to keep safe. 

That includes everyone working in the medical field. It’s vital to learn about hepatitis C symptoms, transmission, and prevention. Testing is crucial too. Although effective treatments exist, they are more effective the earlier screening takes place.

At BloodbornePathogensTraining.com we are specialists in health care training. We provide training on health care, workplace safety, and legislative compliance. We’re committed to helping your business upskills team members with knowledge that will keep them and others safe.