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3 Jun 2018

The Common Infection Many People Don't Know They Have

Hepatitis C is a treatable liver disease, but signs and symptoms are often mild or nonexistent. The solution is to get tested.
If you knew you’d contracted a potentially deadly infection, you’d probably go to the doctor for care. But what if you have such an infection and don’t know it? That could be the case for many people with hepatitis C because they don’t experience any symptoms of the virus, according to the American Liver Foundation (ALF).

“It’s very common to have hepatitis C without symptoms,” says James Hanje, MD, the program director of transplant hepatology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Many people have a difficult time even knowing how or when they contracted hepatitis C.”

In fact, hepatitis C is rarely diagnosed in its early stages. Most of the time, it’s only caught after it has done considerable damage to the liver. Getting screened is the only way to know if you have hepatitis C. Find out if you qualify for a free test.

Here’s what you should know about the virus.

Initial Hepatitis C Symptoms Are Often Mild or Nonexistent
The illness occurs when people are exposed to blood that contains the hepatitis C virus — by using contaminated needles, for example, or by getting a transfusion of blood that hasn’t been screened for contaminants, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The first stage of infection, called acute hepatitis C, develops within six months of exposure to the virus. Most people don’t look or feel sick at this point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but some people may experience symptoms, which include:

Fatigue
Fever
Stomach pain
Nausea
A decrease in appetite
Urine that’s dark in color
Stools that are light in color
Sore muscles and joints
Yellowish color in the eyes and skin (jaundice)
If these problems are caused by acute hepatitis C, they usually appear about six to seven weeks after the infection took place; the incubation window for the hepatitis C virus ranges from two weeks to six months. For approximately 15 to 25 percent of people infected with hepatitis C, the virus clears up on its own, without treatment, the CDC reports, while the remainder of those infected develop what’s known as chronic hepatitis C.
How Can You Tell If You Have Chronic Hepatitis C?
While most people don’t feel unwell even with chronic hepatitis C, this isn’t true for everyone. Some potential signs and symptoms of chronic hepatitis C that has led to liver damage include:

Fatigue
Weight loss
Abdominal pain and nausea
Itching
Urine that’s dark in color
Jaundice
Bleeding and bruising easily
Swelling of the legs or ankles
Accumulating fluid in the abdomen (ascites)
The appearance of spidery blood vessels on the skin (spider angiomas)
Drowsiness, confusion, and slurred speech (hepatic encephalopathy)
Without treatment, a hepatitis C infection can cause severe liver damage and, potentially, liver failure, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Within 20 years of becoming infected, 5 to 20 percent of people with hepatitis C develop cirrhosis of the liver, says the CDC.

Should You Get Screened for Hepatitis C?
It’s important that the hepatitis C virus be detected early and that people who have it get treatment. Every person born between 1945 and 1965 — the baby boomers — should be tested for hepatitis C at least once, the CDC advises; baby boomers are five times more likely to have this virus than other adults.

But since any signs and symptoms of this illness vary widely, and can change with the stage of disease involved, it’s also important to know your risk factors, which can include:

Getting a tattoo or body piercing from someone who didn’t use properly sterilized equipment
Using intravenous drugs by means of a shared needle, or sharing a straw to inhale drugs
Being a healthcare worker or working in another environment in which you could have come into contact with needles or blood infected with hepatitis C
Having unprotected sex with multiple sex partners, having HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), or having another sexually transmitted disease
Being born to a mother who had hepatitis C when she was pregnant
Undergoing hemodialysis for an extended period of time
Receiving an organ transplant or blood transfusion before July 1992
Receiving a blood clotting product made before 1987
It’s simple to get screened for hepatitis C, says Dr. Hanje, and the treatment for this damaging liver disease is safe and effective. “And if [you have] any concern about possible exposure to hepatitis C,” he says, “contact your doctor immediately for testing.”

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