With a widespread reputation for liver damage, hepatitis C is far from an unknown disease in the United States. What is less commonly known as that while it does tend to affect injection drug users at a much higher than average rate than the rest of the population, they are far from the only groups impacted by this disease. Moreover, it may be more common than you think.

According to Centers for Disease Control statistics, “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).”

Unfortunately, adds the CDC, hepatitis C is significantly underreported: “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)

Due to its underreported nature and the fact that more information might help bring earlier and better reporting to the fore, it’s critical that you educate yourself about the disease – especially if you believe you or a loved one might be at risk.

A Brief History of Hep C

Unlike many other sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis C was discovered only recently. The virus was first identified in 1989, and screening tests were released in 1990. Before that, estimates place hepatitis C transmission in the hundreds of thousands in a country like Canada alone. (2) Around this time, in the 1990s, studies came out reporting that huge percentages of populations (for instance, 15 to 20 percent of people in Egypt) were infected with HCV, largely due to the reuse of hypodermic needles during vaccination campaigns.

As of today, we have relatively effective drugs that can treat hepatitis C, but numbers are still going up. This indicates a major need for public education about the disease.

What Causes Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C, often referred to merely as hep C or as HCV (hepatitis C virus), is a bloodborne virus. However, the name is a little misleading. Hepatitis is actually inflammation of the liver, and there are four other versions of it: A and B, D and E. Each of these types has a different cause. In the case of C, it is a virus that, when contracted, eventually causes liver problems and limits its function. People who get hepatitis C eventually notice mild and then severe liver complications, which can be fatal. So exactly how do people contract this virus?

How Is Hepatitis C Contracted?

Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus, which means that there must be blood to blood contact in order for it to spread from one person to another. The most common forms of transmission are through needles, though it can spread from mother to fetus, through sexual partners or at tattoo/piercing parlors as well. Unfortunately, the body does not build up immunity to hepatitis the way it does with certain other diseases (say, chicken pox or flu.) Thus, even once you have taken medication to become virus-free, you can get infected again. (3)

Who Is Most at Risk of Hepatitis C?

For obvious reasons, the groups most at risk of contracting hepatitis C are those who are exposed to blood. There are a number of common ways in which the disease is transferred (4), the most common of which include:

  • Sharing needles for the purpose of using injection drugs such as morphine, heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines
  • People who have had blood transfusions or organ transplants from people with hep C, especially those who did so before June 1992, when far more accurate blood screening tests were introduced
  • Health care workers who suffer what are known as “needle-stick accidents,” in which they accidentally prick themselves (or another worker pricks them) with a used hypodermic needle
  • Babies born to moms infected with HCV

Other populations who are less-at-risk include people who snort cocaine using shared devices, people who engage in risky sexual behavior or have multiple partners, and those who share family items such as toothbrushes or razors.

What Are the Symptoms of Hepatitis C?

Unfortunately, hepatitis C tends to develop slowly over years without revealing itself through symptoms. The result is that many people suffer for years without knowing they have the virus. Eventually, if left untreated long enough, it will start to manifest with symptoms such as (5):

  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes, known as jaundice
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Poor appetite and weight loss
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen and swollen legs
  • Itchy skin
  • Confusion, sleepiness, slurring of speech, which results from encephalopathy, or damage to the brain
  • Spidery blood vessels on the surface of skin, known as spider angiomas

Because these symptoms develop so late, it’s wise for people who belong to any of the above at-risk groups to get a screening.

Hepatitis C Mortality

Contracting hepatitis C comes with a measurable increase in the risk of mortality from liver-related diseases. As the Mayo Clinic explains, “out of 100 people infected with hepatitis C, approximately 60 to 70 will develop chronic liver disease – specifically, hepatitis and fibrosis – and 5 to 20 will develop cirrhosis over a period of 20 to 30 years. An estimated 1 to 5 out of 100 people with chronic hepatitis C will die of cirrhosis or liver cancer resulting from the infection.” (6)

The Mayo Clinic adds that chronic hepatitis C is the most common reason for liver transplants in the U.S. Sadly, needing a new liver and getting one are not the same thing. The odds just aren’t good, which is why it’s so important to practice good safety measures.

Hep C and You

If you want to stay safe from hepatitis C, it’s critical to avoid the above dangers, including sharing needles and engaging in risky sexual behaviors without use of a barrier device (such as a condom). If you are in a high-risk category, it’s also a good idea to get screened for hep C. Remember, you can get reinfected, so if you have engaged in high-risk behavior since last getting screened, it’s a good idea to do so again. That way, you can protect yourself and others today and every day.

Are you sexually active? Regular screening is an essential part of a healthy sex life and can protect you and your partners from help C. For affordable and accurate STD screening in the privacy of your own home, request your STD test kit today.

References:

(1) Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for Health Professionals. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/hcvfaq.htm#section1

(2) A Brief History of Hepatitis C: 1989 – 2018. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.catie.ca/en/practical-guides/hepc-in-depth/brief-history-hepc

(3) Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm#C2

(4) Who’s at Risk for Hepatitis C. (ND). Retrieved from https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/hepatitis/hepatitis_c/whos_at_risk.htm

(5) Hepatits C Overview. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hepatitis-c/symptoms-causes/syc-20354278

(6) Liver Transplantation for Hepatitis C: How Common Is It? (2019). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hepatitis-c/expert-answers/liver-transplant-for-hepatitis-c/faq-20114794