What is hepatitis C and how can you avoid it?

August 29, 2018 | by Jonathan Gibson, M.D.

You may not know it, but as you’re reading this, your liver is working hard to keep your body healthy. Your liver converts the nutrients in your diet into substances your body can use and store. It also helps convert toxic substances into harmless substances to keep your body healthy.

When your liver is infected by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), it becomes inflamed. This makes it more difficult for the liver to process blood and filter toxins from your body. Over time, the liver can become severely damaged and the risk of cancer increases. So what exactly is hepatitis C, how is it tied to cancer, and how can you avoid it?

An infection of the liver, hepatitis C can range from a mild illness lasting only a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. It is transmitted or spread when the blood from a hepatitis C-infected person enters the blood stream of someone who is not infected.

Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious health problems. People with hepatitis C are at a greater risk of scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis. During cirrhosis, healthy cells in the liver are replaced with scar tissue. Over decades, chronic infection with hepatitis C can cause liver failure.

Hepatitis C is also the most common cause of liver cancer in the U.S. New research suggests people with hepatitis C also have a higher risk of developing other cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate and renal cancers.

Since there are few, if any, symptoms of hepatitis C, most people don’t know they have the infection until liver damage shows up on a routine medical test. If symptoms are present, they may appear a few months after exposure to the virus and include jaundice, fatigue, nausea, fever and muscle aches.

  • Unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. But, there are steps you can take to protect yourself:
  • Do not inject drugs.
  • Hepatitis C can spread through sharing needles and syringes. If you are currently using illicit drugs, stop and seek treatment. Linden Oaks Behavioral Health offers a variety of services at each stage of the addiction and recovery process.
  • Do not share personal care items that can transfer blood, including razors and toothbrushes.
  • If you are thinking about getting a tattoo or body piercing, make sure you choose a reputable location where the instruments being used are properly sanitized.
  • Use a latex condom during sex to prevent the spread of hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases.

Hepatitis C virus is not spread by sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, or sneezing. It is also not spread through food or water.

If you think you may have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus, talk to your physician. Your doctor will help determine if and how much of the virus is in your body, the type of hepatitis you may have, and discuss your treatment options with you.

The Walter Payton Liver Center Outreach Clinic offers convenient consultation services for patients with cirrhosis, complex liver conditions and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Learn more.

Related blogs:

Do viruses cause cancer?

Liver disease: potentially deadly, and avoidable

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