What you should know about the hepatitis virus

Strategies for Well-Being

Your liver is the largest organ inside your body. It helps your body digest food, store energy and remove poisons. Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. One type, hepatitis C, is caused by the hepatitis C virus. It usually spreads through contact with infected blood. It can also spread through sex with an infected person and from mother to baby during childbirth.

Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are diseases caused by three different viruses. Although each can cause similar symptoms, they have different modes of transmission and can affect the liver differently. Hepatitis A appears only as an acute or newly occurring infection and does not become chronic. People with hepatitis A usually improve without treatment. Hepatitis B and hepatitis C can also begin as acute infections, but in some people, the virus remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems. There are vaccines to prevent hepatitis A and B; however, there is not one for hepatitis C. If a person has had one type of viral hepatitis in the past, it is still possible to get the other types.

Most people who are infected with hepatitis C don’t have any symptoms for years. If you do get symptoms, you may feel as if you have the flu. You may also have jaundice, a yellowing of skin and eyes, dark-colored urine and pale bowel movements. A blood test can tell if you have it. Usually, hepatitis C does not get better by itself. The infection can last a lifetime and may lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.

HCV is transmitted mainly through the sharing of injection drug use equipment and the receipt of blood and blood products. Although they account for a small percentage of HCV cases, some other means of transmission include travelling or living in HCV-prevalent countries, sharing equipment for inhalation drug use (such as crack pipes), sexual contact, perinatal or mother-to-child transmission, tattooing or body piercing with contaminated equipment and the sharing of personal hygiene items such as razors and toothbrushes.

Baby boomers are five times more likely than other groups to have been exposed to hepatitis C. This is most likely due to receiving blood, blood products or transplants prior to universal screening procedures. And since people with HCV might not show symptoms, they may unknowingly transmit the virus to others.

Hepatitis C virus infection has become increasingly common among people living with HIV. Approximately 30 percent of people with HIV infection worldwide are also infected with HCV. Hepatitis C is concentrated in marginalized groups, and the prevalence rates among the homeless and the incarcerated are many times higher than the national average. In recent years, new outbreaks of hepatitis C have emerged among young people who begin using pharmaceutical opioids and then shift to injecting heroin, which is cheaper and easier to obtain.

Contrary to widespread perceptions, HCV infections are not an “urban thing.”

Studies have not only found an increase in hepatitis C infection among non-pregnant U.S. adults, but that rates of HCV increased among predominantly White persons who lived in non-urban areas and had a history of injection drug use.

We are also finding that due to the opioid epidemic that is plaguing the country, the U.S. rate of maternal HCV infections has nearly doubled between 2009-2014, according to the CDC. Needless to say, this is creating a serious threat to the health of these women, but also to their babies. A baby has about a 6 percent chance of contracting hepatitis C if their mother has it. Researchers estimate that 23,000 to 46,000 children in the United States are infected with hepatitis C.

In this light, we must acknowledge the role of social determinants of health: Overall, women with HCV at the time of live birth had an increased risk of having a high school education or less, being unmarried, having late or no prenatal care and smoking cigarettes.

Many people live with the hepatitis C virus without even knowing they have it. Hepatitis C, caused by HCV, damages the liver. About 15 to 30 percent of people with the virus clear it without treatment. This is called acute HCV and is rarely associated with life-threatening conditions.

The other 70 to 85 percent of people will develop chronic HCV infection. Chronic hepatitis C is long-term and can lead to permanent liver scarring – or cirrhosis – or liver cancer. Anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the people who develop chronic hepatitis will develop cirrhosis within 20 years.

Chronic HCV usually has no symptoms. People with chronic HCV may not even know they have it. But once symptoms appear, it means that damage to the liver has already begun.

In June 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug approved to treat all six genotypes of hepatitis C. Treatment options and new drug regimens for hepatitis C are rapidly evolving. If you are diagnosed with hepatitis C, there are lifestyle changes you can make to help you stop it damaging your liver further and to protect others. It’s important to eat a well-balanced diet, as the buildup of fatty deposits in the liver can damage it further.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!


This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through http://www.glennellis.com.


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