You cannot avoid hearing news of the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa these days. People are terrified and the greatest scientific minds in medicine are unable to stop it. About 1,000 people have died from Ebola infection in the past few weeks – more than ever before. While this is a particularly frightening turn of events, there is another, quieter virus that everyone in the US age 50 and older should know about and be tested for – Hepatitis C. About three to four million people in the United States alone have it, so it is a significant problem.
The ABCs of hepatitis. I am sure that you have heard someone talk about Hepatitis A, B or C. Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. Some hepatitis is caused by too much fat in your liver, some by alcohol and/or other drugs. The hepatitis we are talking about in this article is caused by viruses. Contracting Hepatitis A virus as an adult can be awful. Some people say it’s the sickest they’ve ever been. Hepatitis B virus can be something that gives you symptoms very soon after getting infected or can be chronic (lasting a long time) but without very obvious symptoms. Hepatitis C is very similar to Hepatitis B, but where 30-50% of people with Hepatitis B develop symptoms, only 20-30% of people with Hepatitis C virus do – that is to say that most people do not feel sick from Hepatitis C and, therefore, don’t know they have it unless they have their blood tested.
How do you get hepatitis? Hepatitis A is generally spread by eating food or drink contaminated with the virus and can be spread through some sexual activities. But, it usually goes away on its own. Hepatitis B and C are spread by blood and other bodily fluids – they can pass through sexual contact or from an infected mother to her baby or, if a person shares needles for drug use, they may be sharing more than just the drug – Hepatitis B and C might be getting injected, too. A healthcare worker who gets a needle-stick injury is at risk. Sharing the same razor, nail clippers, or using another person’s tooth brush can also spread Hepatitis B and C. Some people get it through tattoos. Openings in the skin and gums allow the virus to get into a person’s blood stream causing them to be ill. Even if a person only did some of these things once or twice as a crazy teenager, there is a risk of infection. If a person received a contaminated transfusion or an organ donation before 1971, it’s possible to be infected with Hepatitis B. It wasn’t until 1992 that blood products for transfusions were first tested for Hepatitis C. In this article we will focus on Hepatitis C because public health experts are recommending more screening due to its quiet nature and the toll it takes on people’s health.
What are the symptoms? Usually, the way we know that we are infected with something is that we develop symptoms and feel sick. With any hepatitis, people can start out with flu-like symptoms – chills, fever, body aches, nausea, etc. Their skin and the whites of their eyes may become jaundiced (yellow-colored). The person’s bowel movement may appear gray instead of brown and urine may be much
darker. Hepatitis C is becoming such a big problem because it is sneaky with either no or very subtle symptoms – one could be infected and simply not know it.
What does Hepatitis C do to a person? A person may live with Hepatitis C for 20-30 years without ever having any symptoms of it. The most common symptom is fatigue, but there are about a thousand disorders that can make you feel fatigued, so most people don’t run to their healthcare provider to get tested. The worst potential problem with Hepatitis C is that it can cause cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver or liver cancer. The liver helps our blood to clot, stabilizes fluids in our system, helps change our food into a form we can use for energy, stores vitamins and acts as a filter to purify the blood. If it cannot perform these functions, a person’s health will deteriorate.
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Well, here’s the bad news: there is no vaccine against Hepatitis C, so the best way to win this fight is to not get infected in the first place. A person with HCV can infect others unintentionally – this is just bad for everyone involved. And, unfortunately, you can have different types of hepatitis at the same time. The good news: there are vaccines to prevent both Hepatitis A and B and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone get them – children get them as babies and any adults who might be at risk should get them. Sometimes a person’s own body clears the Hepatitis C virus and that person does not become ill. There are medications to treat Hepatitis B and C if a person should get infected and those medicines are getting much better these days. About half of the people who take a two-drug combination will be cured of Hepatitis C.
So, what should you do now? You wouldn’t want to discover you had something you weren’t supposed to be hauling in your rig. If you are age 50 or older, or if you are younger and have ever done any of the things that can cause Hepatitis C like sharing a razor, getting a tattoo, using intravenous drugs with a shared needle – even just once – talk to your healthcare provider about having a Hepatitis C blood test. Remember, your body might not let you know if you are sick with this quiet virus. It would not be easy to find out you have Hepatitis C, but it wouldn’t be any easier to discover that you had liver disease or caused an infection in another person that you might have otherwise prevented, either. So, get yourself tested and don’t let “the quiet virus” ruin your health – or worse.