Hepatitis C is transmitted to a person who comes into contact with blood that is contaminated with the virus. The illness can be mild and last just a few weeks or it can be lifelong. In most cases, patients with hepatitis C develop a chronic condition which can lead to long-term health issues.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70 to 80 percent of people infected with acute hepatitis C experience no symptoms until the disease has progressed to damaging the liver. Some individuals may experience symptoms similar to the flu or other symptoms like diminished appetite, vomiting, nausea, fatigue, fever, stomach pain, dark colored urine, arthralgia (joint pain), abnormally colored bowel movements (like clay), jaundice (yellowing of the skins and eyes) or tenderness in the liver area.
Symptoms of Advancing Liver Disease
Symptoms usually emerge between six and seven weeks after being exposed to hepatitis C. There have been cases reported to the CDC in which patients do not experience symptoms for six months. In cases of long-term hepatitis C infection, liver damage occurs which can increase the severity of your symptoms. Additional symptoms indicating serious liver damage may include swelling of the abdomen (a condition called ascites), neurological changes and bleeding of the GI (gastrointestinal) tract.
How it is Transmitted
Understanding how hepatitis C is spread can help you to understand your own risk of developing the condition. The hepatitis C virus can be spread through the sharing needles for drug use, organ transplants (prior to 1992 when blood-screening was improved), blood transfusions (prior to 1992) and a small percentage of instances where babies can become infected during the birthing process. Additionally, although rare, it is possible for the virus to be transmitted through sexual contact.
Those at increased risk of developing an infection of hepatitis C include health care workers who have come into contact with infected blood, people with a history of IV drug use/abuse, patients who received an organ transplant or blood transfusion prior to 1992, anyone who receives hemodialysis treatments over a long period of time, if you were born to a mother with the disease and if you are HIV-positive. Receiving tattoos or a body piercing in an environment that is not sterile or with contaminated equipment also puts you at an increased risk.
The CDC estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 people die in the United States annually as a result of hepatitis C-related liver disease. Complications of hepatitis C include damage to the liver leading to liver failure, cancer, cirrhosis and death. According to the CDC, approximately 60 to 70 percent of people with hepatitis C will develop liver disease. 5 to 20 percent will develop cirrhosis within 30 years and 1 to 5 percent will die.
Even if you have no signs or symptoms, if you have any of the risk factors for contracting hepatitis C, you should talk to your doctor about being screened for the infection. Early detection can minimize your risk of developing long-term complications and maximize your chances of avoiding serious liver damage. Your doctor may want to do a blood test to determine if your have the virus and or a liver biopsy to determine the severity of your condition.