Posted by Victoria Louwagie, P.A.-C.
September 18, 2015
If a simple blood test could improve your long-term health or possibly save your life, would you have it done? The answer for most people is a resounding “Yes.” Testing for hepatitis C, which entails a basic blood draw and analysis, can be the difference between serious health complications later in life or a manageable — in some cases curable — condition.
Let’s explore questions and answers to help you understand more about chronic hepatitis C.
Q. What is hepatitis C?
A. Hepatitis C is a viral infection that targets the liver, leading to inflammation. Several hepatitis viruses exist, but hepatitis C is one of the most serious forms. Hepatitis A, B and C are different diseases.
Passed through contact with contaminated blood, hepatitis C is often contracted by sharing needles or snorting drugs. However, receiving a blood transfusion, clotting factor or organ transplant before 1992, getting piercings or tattoos in an unsterile environment, and having a history of incarceration, among other things, are also risks for hepatitis C.
Q. What are the symptoms?
A. Many people with hepatitis C don’t know they have the infection. Symptoms typically don’t appear until later in the course of chronic infection.
Signs of chronic infection include:
- Bleeding easily
- Bruising easily
- Itchy skin
- Fluid accumulation in your abdomen
- Swelling in the legs
- Weight loss
- Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech
- Spider-like blood vessels on your skin
Because symptoms usually don’t appear until after hepatitis C has caused years of liver damage, the importance of screening is vital.
Q. Who should be tested?
A. Consider a hepatitis C test if you:
- Were born between 1945-1965 (includes the highest rate of infection in the general public)
- Have injected or snorted drugs (current user or history of use)
- Had a tattoo done in an unprofessional and/or unsterile environment
- Were ever incarcerated
- Received a blood transfusion, organ transplant or clotting factor prior to 1992
Talk to your health care provider if you have questions or concerns about being tested for hepatitis C.
Q. What are potential complications?
A. Left untreated or undetected, hepatitis C can cause serious complications, such as:
Q. Is treatment available?
A. Again, catching hepatitis C early is integral to optimal long-term health. Antiviral medications are available to treat and eliminate hepatitis C from your body. Older forms of these medications, which required patients to be on a regimen for 24-72 weeks, often elicited serious side effects like depression, flu-like symptoms and loss of healthy blood cells. New antiviral medications, on the other hand, are oral pills with very low risk of side effects and better cure rates.
Overall, the new treatments are highly superior to older agents, which excluded people with mental illness or history of suicide. Newer agents have very little exclusion criteria. People who were barred from treatment in the past now can possibly be treated. If a person underwent treatment in the past and was not cured, they should be re-evaluated.
Your health care team may recommend lifestyle changes to keep you and others healthy if you are diagnosed with hepatitis C. Common measures are refraining from consuming alcohol, avoiding medications that may cause liver damage and taking extra precautions to protect others from contact with your blood.
If you're at risk of hepatitis C, talk to your health care provider about testing. Identifying and treating health issues early helps improve your well-being for years to come.
Victoria Louwagie, physician assistant, is a digestive care provider at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.