Hepatitis C, I’ve heard of it, but what is it exactly? We sat down with our very own gastroenterologist Sarah Bligh to learn all about Hepatitis C, its causes, symptoms, treatments, and everything in between and we are here to share all of it with you!
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a chronic viral infection of the liver. It is an infection contracted through the sharing of needles or blood to blood contact. Unlike Hepatitis A and B, Hep C usually does not present symptoms upfront, and your body is not as able to fight off the infection on its own. Since Hep C does not present symptoms upfront, it is not usually detected early on which then can cause severe liver damage and other problems over time.
Hep C was known to exist for many years but was not fully discovered until the mid to late 1980s. Even then, a method for testing it was not developed until the 90s. So anyone alive before this time was automatically at risk for contracting Hepatitis C, and it was easier to be spread around than one person may think.
How could I get Hep C?
The sharing most commonly spreads hepatitis C and reusing of needles. This can occur in more ways than one may imagine. Doctors use needles all the time for blood work, blood transfusions, dialysis, and any invasive procedure that could cause exposure of blood to blood contact. It can also happen through the sharing of needles in drug use, or having a tattoo done outside of a professional setting, and so on. Another significant factor that has put so many people at risk is the treating of military persons before we knew about this infection, such as the Vietnam War. Soldiers could go through medical care, and in an attempt to treat every person quickly the medical personnel might fly through using one needle multiple times, potentially spreading a virus.
Who is at risk for Hep C?
The most at risk people are those we consider “baby boomers” or born in the timeframe of 1945-1965. These people are at risk simply because they were alive before anyone had knowledge of, testing for, or precautions for the infection, so even those in the medical field were unaware of how to protect everyone from it. Since there was merely a lack of knowledge at this time, people were not as cautious about needle use when in a medical setting, getting a tattoo, using drugs, etc. To sum, anyone born before the 80s, when the infection was fully discovered, could potentially be at risk. People born after this period are not at quite the same risk, but based on a history of risk factors or abnormal liver tests it might be necessary to be tested.
Symptoms, Risks, and the Importance of Being Screened
Hep C does not usually present symptoms right away. If you were to experience symptoms, they would be similar to flu-like illness. You may feel body aches, fatigue, abdominal pain, sore throat, mild jaundice, and so on. However, as stated earlier, symptoms do not commonly present themselves upfront, so it is essential to ask for screening no matter what.
Although you may not find symptoms, many long-term risks come with Hep C, which is why it is so important to be tested. If Hep C goes unnoticed for too long, these issues may arise:
- Scarring in the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis
- Bleeding problems
- Fluid accumulation in limbs
All of these are severe problems that can be prevented by getting screening and testing done early on. Dr. Bligh explains, “It is critical to be screened early on because if you wait until you have symptoms, it means you have very significant problems.”
In the past, screenings would be done to find out if a patient had any risk factors related to the infection and if any elements were found the patient would then be tested. However, many times it is not easy to pin down where the risk factor came from, so the guidelines have been changed. It is now recommended that if you were born between 1945 and 1965 you should be tested at least once for Hep C. It is just as necessary to be tested for Hep C as it is to be screened for Colon Cancer.
What is the screening and treatment process?
Being tested for Hep C is very easy. Your primary care physician may not always recommend being screened, but now is a better time than ever to have it done as the treatment for Hep C has been evolving over the last four years. Your primary care physician can perform a blood test that will usually indicate right away if you have the virus or not. However, there are always possibilities of false positives and the body treating the infection itself so the physician will take another blood test for confirmation. If you do test positive both times, you can be treated right here in Siouxland. Dr. Bligh is one of the few in the area who can address Hepatitis C, and the treatment can be so easy! It can be as simple as one pill a day for two months! Did I also mention that the cure rate is more than 95%?
If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it is that Hepatitis C can come from so many different sources. If you were born before there was a test developed, you should ask your doctor to be tested. If it turns out that you do have the virus, there are resources in Siouxland that can help. Lastly, the treatment is simple, the virus is curable, and some serious health issues can be prevented in the long run.
Dr. Sarah Bligh