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Hepatitis C

Definition

Hepatitis C is a viral disease that leads to swelling (inflammation) of the liver.

Alternative Names

Non-A hepatitis; Non-B hepatitis

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Hepatitis C infection is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). People who may be at risk for hepatitis C are those who:

  • Have been on long-term kidney dialysis
  • Have regular contact with blood at work (for instance, as a health care worker)
  • Have unprotected sexual contact with a person who has hepatitis C (this risk is much less common than hepatitis B, but the risk is higher for those who have many sex partners, already have a sexually transmitted disease, or are infected with HIV)
  • Inject street drugs or share a needle with someone who has hepatitis C
  • Received a blood transfusion before July 1992
  • Received a tattoo or acupuncture with contaminated instruments (the risk is very low with licensed, commercial tattoo facilities)
  • Received blood, blood products, or solid organs from a donor who has hepatitis C
  • Share personal items such as toothbrushes and razors with someone who has hepatitis C (less common)
  • Were born to a hepatitis C-infected mother (this occurs in about 1 out of 20 babies born to mothers with HCV, which is much less common than with hepatitis B)

Symptoms

Most people who were recently infected with hepatitis C do not have symptoms. About 1 in 10 have yellowing of the skin (jaundice) that gets better.

Of people who get infected with hepatitis C, most develop a long-term (chronic) infection. Usually there are no symptoms. If the infection has been present for many years, the liver may be permanently scarred. This is called cirrhosis. In many cases, there may be no symptoms of the disease until cirrhosis has developed.

The following symptoms could occur with hepatitis C infection:

Signs and tests

Blood tests are done to check for hepatitis C:

  • EIA assay to detect hepatitis C antibody
  • Hepatitis C RNA assays to measure virus levels (viral load)

Genetic testing is done to check for the hepatitis C genotype. Six genotypes exist. Test results can help your doctor better choose your treatment.

  • Most Americans have genotype 1 infection, which is the hardest to treat.
  • Genotypes 2 and 3 are also common, and respond better to treatment.

The following tests are done to identify and monitor liver damage from hepatitis C:

Liver biopsy can show how much damage has been done to the liver.

Treatment

The goals of HCV treatment are to remove the virus from the blood and reduce the risk of cirrhosis and liver cancer that can result from long-term HCV infection.

Many patients with hepatitis C benefit from treatment with medications. The most common medications are a combination of pegylated interferon alfa and ribavirin, an antiviral medication.

  • Most patients receive weekly injections of pegylated interferon alfa.
  • Ribavirin is a capsule taken twice daily. Ribavirin can cause birth defects. Women should avoid getting pregnant during, and for 6 months after treatment.
  • Treatment is given for 24 - 48 weeks.
  • Telaprevir and boceprevir are newer drugs which may be used for patients with genotype 1.

These medications have a number of side effects, and patients must be watched closely. See: Cirrhosis for information about treating more severe liver damage caused by hepatitis C.

Patients who develop cirrhosis or liver cancer may be candidates for a liver transplant.

People with hepatitis C should also:

  • Be careful not to take vitamins, nutritional supplements, or new over-the-counter medications without first discussing it with their health care provider.
  • Avoid any substances that are toxic to the liver, including alcohol. Even moderate amounts of alcohol speed up the progression of hepatitis C, and alcohol reduces the effectiveness of treatment.
  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.

Support Groups

You can often ease the stress of illness by joining a support group of people who share common experiences and problems. See liver disease - resources.

Expectations (prognosis)

Most people with hepatitis C infection have the chronic form.

Patients with genotypes 2 or 3 are more likely to respond to treatment than patients with genotype 1. Newer drugs may improve the response of those with genotype 1.

Many doctors use the term "sustained virologic response" rather than "cure" when the virus is removed from the blood, because it is not known whether this will last a person's entire life. Even if treatment does not remove the virus, it can reduce the chance of severe liver disease.

Hepatitis C is one of the most common causes of chronic liver disease in the United States today. People with this condition may have:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Liver cancer (also called hepatocellular cancer) -- may develop in a small number of people with liver cirrhosis

Hepatitis C usually comes back after a liver transplant, which can lead to cirrhosis of the new liver.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • You develop symptoms of hepatitis
  • You believe you have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus

Prevention

Avoid contact with blood or blood products whenever possible. Health care workers should follow precautions when handling blood and bodily fluids.

Do not inject illicit drugs, and especially do not share needles with anyone. Be careful when getting tattoos and body piercings.

Sexual transmission is very low among stable, monogamous couples. A partner should be screened for hepatitis C. If the partner is negative, the current recommendations are to make no changes in sexual practices.

People who have sex outside of a monogamous relationship should practice safer sex behaviors to avoid hepatitis C as well as sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and hepatitis B.

Currently there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

References

Ghany MG, Strader DB, Thomas DL, Seeff LB. American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. Diagnosis, management, and treatment of hepatitis C: an update. Hepatology. 2009;49:1335-1374.

Jou JH, Muir AJ. In the clinic. Hepatitis C. Ann Intern Med. 2008;148:ITC6-1-ITC6-16.

O'Leary JG, Davis GL. Hepatitis C. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 79.

Rosen HR. Clinical practice. Chronic hepatitis C infection.N Engl J Med. 2011 Jun 23;364(25):2429-38.


Review Date: 10/16/2011
Reviewed By: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc. and George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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