Hepatitis C is an infectious virus that is carried in the blood and affects the liver. More than 5,000 individuals in Canada–mostly young people–get this virus each year.

You may not know you have this disease until damage has already been done to your liver. That’s why you need to know if you’re at risk.

How does it spread?

Hepatitis C is spread through the direct contact with infected blood. People who use intravenous drugs are at the greatest risk for contracting Hepatitis C because of the chance of the virus being present on already used needles or other drug equipment. Any tools in a medical setting or body art facility that come into contact with blood should be properly sterilized and/or disposed of. These places should follow up to date sanitary procedures and be operating under a license. Safe sex should always be practiced because Hepatitis C can be transmitted during rough sex or if blood is present.

Testing & Treatment

If you suspect you may have come into contact with Hepatitis C, an initial antibody test is done through blood work, taking 3-5 days for the results. A second blood test will be done to find out if the virus is currently present and to what extent. From here, a third blood test is performed if the individual would like to pursue treatment. Ultrasounds will be done to ensure the liver is at an optimal stage to accept treatment. Here in Lethbridge, a referral will be made to a liver specialist. Each individual specialist can create their own requirements that must be met before they provide treatment because it is 100% covered only ONCE in your lifetime through provincial health care and is very costly. There are 6 strains of Hepatitis C, and it is possible to have more than one at the same time. Strain 1 being the most harmful to your body, as well as the most costly and lengthy treatment. Strains 1 through 3 are the most common strains to acquire in North America, 3 through 6 being the most common in Europe.

Living with Hepatitis C

If infected, it is important to take special care of personal items that could have come in contact with blood, like toothbrushes and razors. Normally, being pregnant will not affect the course of Hepatitis C. There is approximately a 1 in 20 chance that you will pass Hepatitis C to your baby, but there is no need to do a Caesarian section. You may need antiviral medication after your baby is born, and baby will need to be tested for Hepatitis C at 18 months of age for accurate results. An individual seeking treatment or being treated for Hepatitis C should avoid alcohol and other substances, as well as maintain a healthy lifestyle (diet and exercise). Alcohol, drugs, and obesity can make Hepatitis C infection harder to treat.

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What is your liver and why do you need it?

The liver does a lot of things for you. It helps digest food and also stores vitamins and minerals. But most importantly, the liver acts as a filter for chemicals and other substances that enter the body, including toxins in the air that we breathe and what we eat and drink. It is also important in the manufacture of your blood.

What can happen to people with Hepatitis C?

The illness begins almost like “flu” with fatigue, a fever, body aches and pains, and perhaps nausea and vomiting. The urine may become dark brown. In severe infections, the skin or the eyes may turn yellow (jaundice).

Although people who get Hepatitis C may not have symptoms, or feel ill for only a short time, they may carry the Hepatitis C virus in their bloodstream and be contagious for years. In the majority of cases, Hepatitis C progresses to a “chronic” stage, which lasts for a long time and continues to cause symptoms for years, if not a person’s whole life. The worst effect of this is cirrhosis, which results in severe damage to the liver. A small number of people may get cancer.

How can I find out if you have Hepatitis C?

If you think you may be at risk for Hepatitis C, you may want to take the simple blood test for this disease. For more information, contact a public health clinic, your doctor or the Lethbridge HIV Connection.

Am I at risk for Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of infected people. This can happen by:

  • Sharing needles, straws and other drug-related equipment.
  • Getting a tattoo or having body piercing or acupuncture where the operator uses the unclean equipment.
  • Being pricked by a needle that has infected blood on it (hospital workers can get Hepatitis C this way).
  • Being born to a mother who has Hepatitis C.

It is also possible that sharing household articles such as a razor or toothbrush with an infected person can spread Hepatitis C.
People who had a blood transfusion before 1992 are also at risk of developing the disease.

Hepatitis C is NOT spread by casual contact such as hugging, kissing, or shaking hands or by being around someone who is sneezing or coughing. The virus is also NOT found in food or water.

What if I have Hepatitis C?

There are drugs called Interferon and Ribavirin that can be used to treat Hepatitis C. However, you need to discuss with your physician the side effects associated with these drugs. There is NO vaccine against the disease.

If you have Hepatitis C, you may infect others. To keep from spreading the disease:

  • Don’t share toothbrushes, razors or any other ordinary item that could be contaminated with your blood.
  • Cover open sores or breaks in your skin.
  • Follow safer sex practices: inform your sex partner about your illness, and use latex condoms.

How did I get Hepatitis C?

Those most at risk include people who received blood transfusions prior to the onset of screening for the virus in 1990, people exposed to contaminated needles (through tattooing, acupuncture, IV drug use, some mass immunization programs), and healthcare workers. But the source of infection is simply unknown for 10 to 15 percent of people infected with Hepatitis C. It is estimated that 0.8% of the Canadian population carry the Hepatitis C virus.

How can I avoid getting Hepatitis C?

The best way to keep safe from Hepatitis C is to avoid the risk:

  • Don’t share drug needles or drug-related equipment, EVER.
  • Wear gloves if you are likely to be in contact with a person’s blood.
  • If you want a tattoo or body piercing or are having acupuncture, make sure a trained reliable person does it with clean, sterile equipment. Needles should be used only once and only on one person.
  • If you have sex with more than one partner, use a condom.

How sick will I get if I have Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is still a mystery virus. Many of those infected do not get sick or feel ill only for a brief time, but the majority of people will develop chronic Hepatitis C which can lead to liver disease, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.

An estimated 20% of people with chronic Hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis, the seventh-leading cause of death in Canada.

Symptoms of chronic Hepatitis C may not appear for a long time after the initial infection. Symptoms may include fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), nausea, muscle and joint pain, skin irritations and hair loss. In more serious cases, loss of liver function leads to a build-up of toxins in the blood. Early signs of toxin build-up include unresponsiveness, forgetfulness, and trouble concentrating or sleeping: weight loss and water retention may occur.

What can I do if I have Hepatitis C?

The risk of cirrhosis increases with alcohol use; consumption should be reduced. Exposure to air and food toxin (i.e., paint fumes, nicotine, chemical preservatives) should be avoided to reduce the amount of work the liver has to do. Many people have been helped by various alternative therapies such as homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedy and massage therapy. Consult your doctor. Those willing to “fight back” have a better chance of suppressing the virus – you spirit and attitude have a profound bearing on your health and well-being.

What is the risk of loved ones getting Hepatitis C if you have it?

Hepatitis C is spread through contact with blood. The risk of household transmission is unknown, but probably very low. However, standard measures for avoiding exposure to other people’s blood should be followed. For example, avoid sharing razors, toothbrushes, and other personal hygiene items. A small but real possibility exists for Hepatitis C to be transmitted sexually. The risk of spreading the Hepatitis C virus from mother to child is estimated at between 5 and 10 percent. It is thought that this may occur during pregnancy.

Is there a cure for Hepatitis C?

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C at the present time. Once in the body, HCV can literally change its coat (or outer capsule) in a process called mutation. It is this outer coating that helps the body or vaccine identify a virus and attack it. Thus, developing a vaccine for hepatitis C has become a moving target. You would need a different vaccine for each mutation of the virus. Researchers are currently tackling this challenge but a vaccine is not expected in the near future.

The standard treatment currently approved for Hepatitis C is a combination of Interferon and Ribavirin. Interferon is an artificial version of a natural product of the body that interferes with virus reproduction. It is injected three times weekly, Ribavirin is a pill taken daily. This combination treatment suppresses the virus; it does not eliminate it. The response rate is promising.

Approximately 40% of people receiving this treatment are able to completely eliminate the Hepatitis C virus from their bodies. Success ranges from 20-80% and depends on many factors: the amount of scarring in the liver, the amount of virus in the body and the specific genotype of hepatitis C. Most people with hepatitis C can live a healthy life for many years. Only about 20% of hepatitis C patients develop cirrhosis or liver cancer. The key to successful treatment and management of the disease is early diagnosis and treatment.

Side effects can include flu-like symptoms, fever, fatigue, headaches, weight loss, nausea, anemia, depression and muscle/bone pain. There are ways to help the liver help itself.