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Health Matters with Fresh Start: The truth about Hepatitis C: Separating fact from fiction

By: Vanessa Flannery, DNP, APRN, FNP-C
Fresh Start Health, Grayson

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and ranges from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness.  Hepatitis C can either be “acute” meaning a new infection, or “chronic” meaning a lifelong infection.

Acute hepatitis C occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the HCV.  Hepatitis C can be a short-term illness, but for most people, acute infection leads to a chronic infection that can cause liver damage, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), and liver cancer. 

How common is Hepatitis C?

The World Health Organization estimates that >170 million are infected worldwide.   As many as 3.5 million Americans and over 56,000 Kentuckians may have chronic hepatitis C infection, with approximately 70% of them not knowing they have it. That’s 1-2% of the population! 10,000-12,000 Americans die of complications from HCV infection each year.  According to CDC reports, Kentucky has the highest rates of HCV.  

How is Hepatitis C spread?

Incubation period is 4-12 weeks (range: 2-24 weeks).

Transmitted primarily through large or repeated percutaneous exposures to infectious blood, such as: 

  • Injection drug use (currently the most common means of HCV transmission in the United States) 
  • Receipt of donated blood, blood products, and organs prior to 1992 
  • Needlestick injuries in health care settings 
  • Birth to an HCV-infected mother (*during pregnancy or at birth – 5% – 8% risk) 
    • Increased risk if hepatitis C contracted during pregnancy 
    • HIV co-infection increases risk 4-fold
  • HCV can also be spread infrequently through 
    • Sex with an HCV-infected person 
    • Sharing personal items contaminated with infectious blood, such as razors or toothbrushes (also inefficient vectors of transmission) 
    • Other health care procedures that involve invasive procedures, such as injections (usually recognized in the context of outbreaks)
    • Intranasal cocaine use, tattooing, and body piercing

What are the symptoms of acute Hepatitis C?

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Gray-colored stools
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)

Can Hepatitis C clear up on its own?

Sometimes Hepatitis C can clear up on it’s own; however 75-85% of the time, it becomes a chronic infection.

Should I get tested for Hepatitis C?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends testing for all adults over the age of 18. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing if you:

  • Were born between 1945 and 1965
  • Inject or have injected illicit drugs, even just once or many years ago
  • Have HIV 
  • Are on long-term hemodialysis
  • Received a blood transfusion or an organ transplant before July 1992
  • Work in healthcare or public safety and were exposed to blood through a needlestick or other sharp object injury
  • Were treated with blood clotting factors made before 1987

How do I get tested for Hepatitis C?

The only way to know if you have Hepatitis C is to get tested.  You may need more than one type of test.  A hepatitis C antibody test will tell you if you have ever been infected with HCV.  If your antibody test is positive, you will need a hepatitis C virus RNA (confirmatory) test.  This can tell if you have a current infection.

What happens if I am diagnosed with Hepatitis C?

Fortunately, Hepatitis C is a treatable disease, and a cure is possible.  Cure means HCV is not detectable in your blood months after treatment has ended.  Speak with your healthcare provider about the available treatment options to manage Hepatitis C.  Fresh Start Health in Grayson can easily test your blood for hepatitis viruses and offer treatment for Hepatitis C and immunizations for Hepatitis A and B.  Call 606-225-8200 to make an appointment.

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