Hepatitis C: Symptoms and treatment
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The first 6 months of an HCV infection is called an acute infection. If the infection lasts for more than 6 months, it is called a chronic infection. Hepatitis C is considered a sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection (STBBI) as it can be transmitted through sexual or blood contact. HCV is primarily spread through blood. It can also be spread through sexual contact, particularly if there is contact with blood.
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Symptoms of hepatitis C
Many people who are living with hepatitis C may have no symptoms or only mild symptoms. People can be living with hepatitis C for years before symptoms develop.
For those who do develop symptoms of an acute infection, symptoms can include:
- dark urine
- pale stools
- loss of appetite
- flu-like symptoms
- pain or tenderness on the right side of the abdomen
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or the whites of the eyes)
A hepatitis C infection lasting more than 6 months is considered chronic.
Symptoms of a chronic infection can include:
- abdominal pain
- blood in stool or vomit
- fluid build up (in your abdomen)
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
Chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious long-term health problems. Hepatitis C can lead to swelling (inflammation) of the liver, which causes liver scarring that affects how the liver functions. Severe liver scarring also increases the chance of developing liver cancer.
Liver damage caused by hepatitis C can take years to occur.
Testing for HCV
Talk to your health care provider about getting tested if you think you are at risk for or may have hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is diagnosed through blood tests. Discuss with your health care provider testing for HCV and screening for other STBBI. It is possible to have more than 1 STBBI at the same time. You can get more information on STBBI testing.
If you are pregnant, you can pass HCV to the baby during pregnancy and childbirth, so it is important to discuss screening for HCV and other STBBI with your health care provider at your first prenatal visit.
Other tests, such as a liver function test, can show if any damage has been done to the liver.
If you have hepatitis C, you should notify anyone who may have been exposed to your blood (including drug-use partners and sexual partners), so that they can be tested.
Treating hepatitis C
Some adults with hepatitis C will recover from the infection on their own within 6 months.
Unfortunately, most adults with hepatitis C cannot clear the virus and recover on their own.
Health Canada has approved several drug combinations to treat and cure hepatitis C, preventing progression of liver disease caused by HCV.
For someone with hepatitis C for more than 6 months (chronic hepatitis C), their health care provider may prescribe a combination of medications.
Whether or not you are getting treatment, you can help lower the risk of damage to your liver by:
- avoiding alcohol
- avoiding smoking
- learn about how to eat a variety of healthy foods
Your health care provider may recommend vaccination against hepatitis A and B. These vaccines can prevent you from getting hepatitis A and B, which may help prevent further liver damage. Even if you clear the virus on your own or with treatment, you can still get hepatitis C again. Until your health care provider confirms that you have been cured, you are still able to transmit the virus to other people. Talk to a healthcare provider about what medications to avoid that can be toxic to the liver.
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