What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a virus that mainly lives in blood. It can only be passed on if tiny amounts of blood get into someone's bloodstream. The most common way for this to happen is through sharing contaminated injecting equipment or through unscreened blood transfusions (blood products have been screened for HCV in this country since September 1991).
Hepatitis simply means ‘inflamed liver'. Hepatitis C can attack the liver, which is one of the largest organs in the body. The liver has many functions, including helping to process food and toxins. If someone has HCV the liver may not be able to perform those functions properly.
Hepatitis C has only been known about since 1989. We know a certain amount about the virus, but it is common to receive conflicting information.
What are the effects of Hepatitis C?
Many people with Hepatitis C feel well. Others report a variety of symptoms, some of which can be caused by other things. Depression, for instance, is common in people with a physical illness.
Symptoms can include:
- Getting tired easily
- Aching in the area of your liver (under the ribs on the right side)
- Bowel irregularities
- Frequent/continuous headaches
- ‘Brain fog' (problems with concentration and memory)
- Night sweats
- In women: painful periods and severe pre-menstrual tension
These symptoms are commonly reported and may not be directly related to Hepatitis C or liver damage. If you know you have Hepatitis C and develop these symptoms, however, you should consult your doctor, reminding them of your condition. This is confidential information and should only be told to people who need to know.
What does Hepatitis C do?
Some people with Hepatitis C recover fully. Others, however, will develop chronic infection. This means it continues over time and could cause serious liver damage. Many people may be unaware of their status, as they may not experience symptoms.
Liver inflammation is fairly common for people who have had Hepatitis C infections for a number of years. At this stage, it is important to be in regular contact with a consultant, who will be able to assess liver damage by undertaking a liver biopsy (sample of the liver) and carrying out regular blood tests. Ideally, you should be linked in with either a Gastroenterologist or a Hepatologist, and you should also have access to a Nurse Specialist, who should be able to answer any questions you may have
Treatment for Hepatitis C is an option for some people. Treatment involves taking a combination of 2 drugs, one of which you will have to inject. This usually lasts between 6 months to a year. The treatment can clear the virus and alleviate symptoms for some, and prevent further liver damage. It does, however, cause side effects for the majority of people. You may be eligible for treatment, but factors such as age, current drug or alcohol use, mental health and gender may affect this decision.
If the liver is inflamed for a long time, it develops permanent scarring. Cirrhosis is a condition that describes complete scarring of the liver. This can take years to develop and will not affect everyone with chronic Hepatitis C. Cirrhosis prevents blood flowing freely through the liver and may lead to liver cancer.
How do I prevent contracting Hepatitis C?
Because Hepatitis C is mainly passed through blood, there are things you can do to avoid catching it.
For people who inject drugs these include:
- Avoiding sharing needles, syringes, filters, swabs, spoons, water, tourniquets, etc.
- Also, do not share straws if you snort drugs (as blood could be present from damaged nasal membranes).
The risk of passing Hepatitis C in any other way is low. Activities to be cautious about, however, include:
- Tattooing and piercing using unclean equipment (always go to a reputable tattooist/piercer. Never share needles if doing it yourself).
- Sharing razors, toothbrushes and other personal items such as tweezers.
- Penetrative sex without a condom (vaginal or anal sex) particularly if there is blood involved, or if you already have a sexually transmitted infection.
- It is also possible for a mum to pass it on to her unborn child.
How do I avoid infecting others?
If you have Hepatitis C, it is important to follow these guidelines to protect other people:
- Clean up your blood-spills from surfaces with brand-name bleach (follow instructions on the bottle carefully).
- Cover cuts and wounds with a waterproof dressing or plaster.
- Do not share personal items such as razors, toothbrushes, earrings etc.
- Do not lend any of your injecting equipment to others. This includes filters, water, spoons, lighters, needles, syringes, and tourniquets.
- Dispose of sanitary products carefully, e.g. by putting in a plastic bag, securing and dropping in the bin.
- Use a condom for penetrative sex.
- Do not carry an organ donor card or give blood.
How do I stay healthy with Hepatitis C?
It is possible to remain well for a long time even if a lot of your liver is affected. If you look after your liver it may cope better. You may stay well for longer and symptoms may improve.
You can help yourself stay well and improve your chance of reducing your symptoms by:
- Stopping drinking alcohol completely or limiting your intake. Consuming alcohol can be damaging for your liver.
- Following a healthy diet, which includes plenty of fruit and vegetables.
- Drinking plenty of water and cut down on your caffeine intake.
- Managing your stress levels! Reducing the amount of stress in your life will help you feel well.
Getting a diagnosis
If you are concerned that you may have Hepatitis C, you can get tested at your GP practice or local hospital (GUM department). If you get tested at your GP, this information will be recorded on your medical records, regardless of the result. When you have a test, you may need some follow-up tests to confirm you have current infections. A confirmed positive test result should then lead to a referral to a Gastroenterologist or Hepatologist.
A useful Website: The British Liver Trust. www.britishlivertrust.org.uk