Hepatitis C is a familiar disease to most people, even if they’re not quite sure what it is or what causes it. Because it causes such serious trauma to the liver, and can even be deadly, it’s very important to understand the disease, what causes it, and especially what the hepatitis C signs and symptoms are.
What Is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a disease that spreads through the hepatitis C virus, or HCV. Once spread from person to person, the virus takes root inside the host and begins to multiply, causing hepatitis C. Over time, this can become a chronic problem that affects the liver seriously.
Hep C is unfortunately fairly common in the U.S. As of the most recently available numbers, “In 2016, a total of 2,967 cases of acute hepatitis C were reported to CDC from 42 states. The overall incidence rate for 2016 was 1.0 cases per 100,000 population, an increase from 2015 (0.8 cases per 100,000 population). Actual acute cases are estimated to be 13.9 times the number of reported cases in any year. After adjusting for under-ascertainment and under-reporting, an estimated 41,200 acute hepatitis C cases occurred in 2016.” (1)
Note the use of the word “acute.” That is the designation for short-term hep C, which typically passes in a few months without symptoms. If it goes untreated in this time, it typically moves into chronic hepatitis C, which is much more serious.
How Is Hep C Spread?
Hep C is spread through blood, although it can also pass through saliva and sexual fluids. The most common ways to contract the disease include (2):
- Sharing needles for the purpose of injecting intravenous drugs
- Going to unvetted tattoo parlors
- Getting a blood transfusion from someone who has hep C (which was much more common before the introduction of new screening tools in 1992)
- Organ transplants from infected individuals (again, much more common before the new 1992 screens)
- Needle stick accidents, in which healthcare workers accidentally prick themselves with a needle from an infected individual
- Babies whose moms were infected with HCV when they were in the womb
Can Hepatitis C Spread Through Sex?
Many people wonder if hep C can spread through sex. They want to make sure they’re being safe with respect to their sexual partners as well as wondering if they can get it from others, and that’s smart.
The truth is, the chance of spreading hepatitis C through heterosexual sex is fairly low. (3) It is more common between men and men, since tissue in the anus is likelier to tear and expose the uninfected partner to infected blood. However, in monogamous couples, doctors don’t even recommend condoms, because the chances are so minimal. If you have more than one partner, however, you should always wear condoms, as each new partner makes the risk of contraction through sex higher.
However, hep C can spread through sores in the mouth and on the body, if they open and blood emerges and passes to another person. For that reason, if anyone in the household has hep C, you should avoid sharing razors or toothbrushes. And you should certainly avoid sharing such personal care items with unknown people.
What Are the Early Signs and Symptoms?
In its early or “acute” stages, hepatitis C frequently has no symptoms whatsoever. Only about 20-30 percent of people develop signs of acute illness. When symptoms do arise, they include (4):
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored stool
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Joint pain
If you notice any of these signs and they don’t pass quickly, it’s extremely important to see a physician. In some cases, hepatitis C can now be cured, and it’s much better to deal with it quickly. However, many people don’t ever know they have it until worse symptoms appear.
What Symptoms Does Hep C Cause in Later Life?
Chronic hepatitis C is equally difficult to detect, explains the Centers for Disease Control: “Most people with chronic HCV infection are asymptomatic or have non-specific symptoms such as chronic fatigue and depression.” These symptoms often go unnoticed or are attributed to stress or fatigue in busy people.
Unfortunately, that means that “Many eventually develop chronic liver disease, which can range from mild to severe, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Chronic liver disease in HCV-infected people is usually insidious, progressing slowly without any signs or symptoms for several decades. In fact, HCV infection is often not recognized until asymptomatic people are identified as HCV-positive when screened for blood donation or when elevated alanine aminotransferase (ALT, a liver enzyme) levels are detected during routine examinations.”
Because of this failure to recognize the disease for years or decades on end, it can sometimes be fatal: “Chronic hepatitis C … can lead to permanent liver scarring (cirrhosis) or liver cancer. Anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the people who develop chronic hepatitis will develop cirrhosis within 20 years.” (5)
Cirrhosis can lead to liver failure, which can be fatal, but even after development of full cirrhosis, it often takes many years to get to this point. However, because the disease is hard to detect, it’s likelier that you will get it if you don’t proactively test.
Who Is at Risk of Hep C?
The people most at risk of hepatitis C are those who work in the medical profession, those who share needles for injected drugs, and those who have unprotected sex with multiple partners. In all of these cases, hep C can invade your body without your knowing it, which is why it’s critical you do regular tests to determine whether it is present.
Can You Test for Hep C at Home?
Yes! The good news is you can absolutely test for hepatitis C at home. If you’d like to get a heads up on your hep C status, and test for a raft of other potential STDs at the same time, a home STD test is the way to go. After all, regular screening is an essential part of a healthy sex life and can protect you and your partners from hepatitis C. For affordable and accurate STD screening in the privacy of your own home, request your STD test kit today.
(1) Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for Health Professionals. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/hcvfaq.htm#section1
(2) Who’s at Risk for Hepatitis C. (ND). Retrieved from https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/hepatitis/hepatitis_c/whos_at_risk.htm
(3) Diagnosing Hepatitis C. (2017). Retrieved from https://liverfoundation.org/for-patients/about-the-liver/diseases-of-the-liver/hepatitis-c/diagnosing-hepatitis-c/#how-is-hepatitis-c-transmitted-or-spread
(4) Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for Health Professionals. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/hcvfaq.htm#section1
(5) What’s the Outlook and Life Expectancy for Hepatitis C? (2019). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/hepatitis-c/hepatitis-prognosis-and-life-expectancy#outlook