The liver is a vital organ in the body and is the most exposed to the toxins we ingest. But, the highlight of the liver is that it has an immense capacity to heal itself. And that’s the reason, any form of liver damage is not immediately realized by the patient.
Of the many infections affecting the liver, Hepatitis C caused by HCV, Hepatitis C Virus has the potency to lead to liver cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Hepatitis C can be acute or chronic. When a person suffers from acute Hepatitis C, the infection lingers for some time, and the patient gets better. However, Hepatitis C is a serious condition indeed and quite a good number of patients suffering from acute Hepatitis C infection progress to chronic Hepatitis C infection in the long-run. As per statistics, around 8000 to 10000 deaths in the US can be attributed to Hepatitis C infection. A risk factor for liver cancer, Hepatitis C is one of the top causes warranting liver transplantation.
Causes of Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is mainly transmitted through blood. The disease can be caused due various reasons, fw of them being
- Sharing of needles and other equipment when injecting illegal drugs into the body
- Exposure to unsterilized equipments by medical professionals
- The most common cause is through infected needles. In very rare cases, Hepatitis C spreads from mother to child at birth.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
The incubation period of the virus ranges from 2 weeks to 6 months. Almost 80% of the infected people don’t exhibit any symptoms in the initial stages. The symptoms that could manifest include,
- Sore muscles
- Pain in the abdomen
- Poor appetite
- Joint pain
- Dark colored urine
- Grey colored stools
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin, i.e. jaundice
Since the Hepatitis C infection remains asymptomatic, most patients are unaware of the infection despite being in the acute stage. Only after it progresses to the chronic stage, where there is severe liver damage, diagnosis is made.
Complications of hepatitis C
Undiagnosed Hepatitis C can lead to blockage of arteries and heart disease. There is also a risk of developing diabetes. This is due to the associated liver damage that affects the lipid levels and blood sugar levels.
The antibodies in the blood can destroy the platelets and lead to fall in platelet levels. Skin conditions like lichen planus and porphyria cutanea tarda can be caused. Hepatitis C can cause B-cell lymphoma (cancer of the blood).
Diagnosis of Hepatitis C
Diagnosing Hepatitis C infection is a 2 step procedure. A blood test for anti-HCV antibodies screens if the patient has anytime been infected by the Hepatitis C virus. If the test turns positive and reveals, the presence of HCV antibodies, a second test, i.e., a nucleic acid test for HCV RNA is conducted to confirm a chronic infection.
Post confirmation of the chronic infection, a liver biopsy test will reveal the extent of liver scarring. Other diagnostic procedures like MRI, CT scan or USG may be carried out to rule out the possibility of liver cancer. An additional test is required to identify the genotype of the virus strain. This is essential as each of these needs different treatment options.
Treatment for Hepatitis C
Acute Hepatitis C infection, in most cases, is undiagnosed. So, many cases are left untreated. In fact, the body’s immune system does fight off the infection. In cases, where the infection has been diagnosed in the early stages, antiviral medication is administered. In over 95% of the cases, antiviral medication has helped cure the infection. In case, the infection goes unattended and progresses to the chronic stage, the line of treatment is dependent on the condition of the liver.
The question that tops the list in Hepatitis C FAQs is whether it can be prevented. While there are vaccines available to prevent a host of viral infections, there is no vaccine to prevent Hepatitis C infection. Limiting the exposure to the virus is the only way that the infection can be prevented.
The World Health Organisation recommends primary interventional measures that can help. These include safe handling of injections and surgical equipment by healthcare professionals, maintaining high levels of sterilization, donated blood screening, safe disposal of medical waste and providing safety equipment for drug users, who are addicted to injecting drugs.
Those infected with the virus, require secondary and tertiary care measures. These include infection management through antiviral medications, immunization against hepatitis A and B, and regular monitoring to prevent serious liver damage.
It is also recommended that those in the high-risk category, like persons injecting drugs, HIV patients, people who have had blood transfusions, those who have tattoos and undergone body piercings, people using intranasal drugs need to be screened for the infection. Early diagnosis can help to prevent serious issues like liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.