Hepatitis C: The lethal liver disease you shouldn’t take lightly

Hepatitis C: The lethal liver disease you shouldn’t take lightly

75-85% of people with Hepatitis C usually become long term patients — don’t let that be you.

Have you ever heard about Hepatitis C? If you have not, hopefully this post will answer most of your concerns! 

It’s important to learn about this serious disease that can affect your liver. If you are wondering how Hepatitis C makes it into your body; Hepatitis C virus travels in your blood and is extremely contagious. This post will answer all of your pressing questions and hopefully many of your fears. My goal is to help you understand, protect yourself and get the treatment that you need to prevent the disease from progressing.


Is Hepatitis C serious?

Hepatitis C can affect you in 2 ways:

  • In the short-term where you experience an acute attack.
  • Or long-term that’s when the condition becomes chronic continuously causing inflammation of the liver.

Symptoms may be mild or really serious causing organ damage and on the unfortunate occasion death. I am not exaggerating about the seriousness of this disease. According to the World Health Organization, almost 70 million people have chronic hepatitis C across the globe. 

Here in Singapore, the disease has a prevalence rate of 0.2% but that is no reason for us to be complacent.

The truth is almost 50% of people who have hepatitis C don’t even know they have it!

Just to give you an idea of how serious hepatitis C is and why it’s not to be taken lightly — it can cause liver failure and increase your risk of developing liver cancer.


So exactly what causes Hepatitis C?

Simply put, Hepatitis C is caused by the Hepatitis C virus. The infection causes inflammation of the liver. You can get infected if you come into contact with the body fluids or secretions of an infected person.


Are there other types of Hepatitis and how are they different?

Yes, you are not wrong, there are other types of hepatitis, namely hepatitis A and B. Just like hepatitis C, they all affect the liver and result in inflammation.

Let’s take a look at how they are different.

Hepatitis A 

  • How you get it: By consuming contaminated food and water from an infected person.
  • Common Symptoms: Fever, diarrhea, nausea, jaundice skin (yellow hue), and urine that is tea-colored.
  • Chances of recovery: Pretty high and on the bright side, patients who recover usually have lifelong immunity.

Hepatitis B

  • How you get it: You can pick up hepatitis B in a number of ways including sex, blood transfusion, needle sharing, 
  • Common Symptoms: Same as Hepatitis A for the most part; but some people are asymptomatic.
  • Chances of recovery: While chronic hepatitis b can lead to cirrhosis of liver cancer, you can recover from an acute attack which leads to immunity.

How can I contract hepatitis C?

You can contract hepatitis C in a number of ways and since it is a bloodborne virus, the ways you can get it are obviously linked to blood, such as: 

  • Sharing of needles 
  • Sharing razors and other personal items that come into contact with an infected person’s blood.
  • Body piercing and tattoos not done under sanitary conditions.
  • Sexual intercourse with an infected person (lower risk)

You should also know that the hepatitis C virus can live outside the body for up to six weeks and remain contagious — so that means you can pick up the virus from a contaminated surface.


What do hepatitis C symptoms look like at every stage?

There is no denying that knowing what to look for can help you get the treatment you need sooner.

Let’s start with Acute hepatitis C symptoms. They usually show up between 2-12 weeks after you have been infected. They are:

  • Fatigue
  • Yellow eyes and skin
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the right side of the abdomen
  • Joint pain

Your doctor will run a liver function test that will confirm whether you have liver inflammation.

Now on to Chronic Hepatitis C. Let’s start with some stats: 75% -85% of the people infected with hepatitis C become long haulers i.e., long-term patients. 10% -20% of long haulers usually end up developing liver cirrhosis. It causes liver scarring and eventually reduced liver function.

The truly unfortunate thing is that liver cirrhosis only starts to show symptoms when it is advanced. People who have liver cirrhosis and hepatitis C often go on to develop liver cancer and or liver failure.


How will my doctor know if I have Hepatitis C?

Your doctor will start with a screening blood test. This test checks for hepatitis C antibodies. It can pick up antibodies even a month after infection. If your test comes back positive for antibodies the next step is the RNA test which is used as a confirmation test. Your doctor will most likely do a liver function test and an ultrasound to gauge the extent of your condition.


How is Hepatitis C treated?

There are anti-viral drugs that can treat Hepatitis C and these treatments have a phenomenally high success rate. We are talking more than 90%!

However, the road to recovery does not end there. After treatment, patients need to have routine checkups to screen for liver inflammation, liver cirrhosis, or cancer. You also need to know that you don’t just go back to normal after treatment. If you have been diagnosed and treated for hepatitis C, you have to make some lifestyle changes.

Happy hour at the bar might be a thing of the past. Anything that may aggravate your liver like alcohol is a definite NO!


Can I be vaccinated against Hepatitis C?

You are out of luck on the vaccine front for Hepatitis C. However, you can get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B.


Am I in the high-risk bracket for developing Hepatitis C?

As with any other disease, they are people who are more likely to get it. You are at risk of contracting Hepatitis C if you fall in the following categories: 

  • People with hepatitis C-positive sexual partners
  • HIV patients
  • Drug users 
  • People who have riskier sexual practices including anal sex
  • Children who are hepatitis c positive moms
  • People who have more than one sexual partner
  • People who already have other sexually transmitted diseases.

What is the link between Hepatitis C and HIV?

HIV and Hepatitis C are a lethal combo. If you have both, your chances of liver complications triple! So, if you test positive for one, be sure to test for the other. Also, the anti-retroviral drugs that are excellent at treating HIV can make liver issues worse.

If a patient has both HIV and Hepatitis C, treatment can be a very rocky road. You see, a doctor treating both needs to consider any possible medication interactions. It’s complicated and problematic compared to if you just had one of these diseases.


Can Hepatitis C be transmitted if you are not exhibiting any symptoms?

You most certainly can. Asymptomatic patients are just as contagious as those that have visible symptoms.


Is there a cure for Hepatitis C?

No, not yet. However, inroads are being made in the vaccine department. There isn’t a vaccine specifically dedicated to Hepatitis C. However, we encourage you to speak to your doctor for the Hepatitis A and B vaccines.


Can I have Hepatitis C and not know it?

You certainly can. Most Hepatitis C patients don’t exhibit any symptoms and feel fine. Only proper testing may eventually reveal a positive result. 


Can the Hepatitis C virus be completely cleared from my body?

Yes, it is possible for the virus to leave your system without treatment. No one knows exactly how this works, but we are still grateful that it does?


Can getting a tattoo or piercing expose me to Hepatitis C?

There is no evidence to suggest that getting a piercing or a tattoo at a licensed establishment will result in a positive Hepatitis C result. However, if the proper hygiene protocols are not followed you can be exposed.


Can I live a normal life with Hepatitis C?

You should not panic if you are diagnosed with Hepatitis C. Once you are diagnosed early, before liver damage sets in, you can live a pretty normal life. Chronic HCV patients usually have an amazing prognosis and can look forward to their health improving with time.


How can I be proactive regarding protecting my liver?

Even if you are fully cured, you may still be at risk of developing liver cancer. So, you need to do your due diligence.

Firstly, you should be upfront and tell your doctor about your previous treatments and never miss your screening and monitoring appointments. It is also a good idea to get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B. You should also eliminate alcohol altogether. 

Lastly, always consult your doctor if you are considering supplements or herbs, or if you decide to take some over-the-counter meds. You need to make sure what you’re taking will not cause liver damage.

Even though Hepatitis C does not get much hype, it is a serious condition that affects people in Singapore and the world at large.


References 

  1. Fanales-Belasio, E., Raimondo, M., Suligoi, B., & Buttò, S. (2010). HIV virology and pathogenetic mechanisms of infection: a brief overview. Annali dell’Istituto superiore di sanita, 46(1), 5–14. https://doi.org/10.4415/ANN_10_01_02
  2. Katzenstein T. L. (2003). Molecular biological assessment methods and understanding the course of the HIV infection. APMIS. Supplementum, (114), 1–37.

This article was written and medically reviewed by Dr Ben, M.D on 14/06/2021