FAQs for Hepatitis C

Article Categories: Laboratory and Testing & Diseases and Conditions

When talking with your patients, it’s a good idea to do a quick risk assessment for Hepatitis C. Just a few questions can make a difference in the current and future health for some of your patients. Almost 75% of cases are never diagnosed.

Take time to review a few facts and understand the importance of early diagnosis and treatment:

What is Hepatitis C? “Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. In the United States, most hepatitis is usually caused by a virus. Only 20% of people exposed to Hepatitis C are able to clear the virus without treatment. The remaining 80% are likely to develop a serious, chronic infection.

What causes Hepatitis C? It’s a blood-borne virus, most commonly spread by sharing needles or other means of injecting drugs. Tattoos or piercings from unlicensed shops or with unsterile equipment can also be a cause. Before 1992, when blood donations were not screened, a patient could be infected from a blood transfusion or organ transplant. Occasionally, it can be sexually transmitted through unprotected sex with multiple partners or from already having a sexually transmitted disease or HIV. Many people never know how they contracted Hepatitis C.

What are the symptoms? Often there are no symptoms, or symptoms are vague. A patient may complain of feeling tired, loss of appetite, joint pain, or being nauseated. Signs of Hepatitis C include fever, dark urine, gray-colored stool, and jaundice of the skin and eyes.

Who should be tested? Everyone born between 1945 and 1965 should have a one-time blood test. Baby Boomers are more than six times likely to be infected with Hepatitis C, due to recreational drug use in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Also, disposable needles were not available. Others to be tested include patients whose tattoos or body piercings were not done with sterile equipment, or patients with a history of multiple sexual partners. Patients on chronic hemodialysis or who have been exposed to blood from someone with Hepatitis C, such as caregivers, should also be screened.

What test is used? The blood test is called the Hepatitis C Antibody Test. A positive test doesn’t always mean the patient is currently infected, but that Hepatitis C was present at some point and the patient developed antibodies to the virus. An RNA test should be ordered to determine if the disease is present.

What happens if Hepatitis C is not treated? Complications of the infection are quite serious. Cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver can occur after 20 years, making normal liver function difficult or impossible. Liver failure can occur, resulting in the need for a liver transplant in order to survive. Once cirrhosis is established, the risk of liver cancer increases; about 5% of patients will progress to liver cancer.

How is Hepatitis C treated? Antiviral medications are used for both acute and chronic Hepatitis C. New drugs, such as Harvoni and Sovaldi, have recently been introduced that can lessen or avoid the side effects of past treatment with interferon and ribavirin, and have higher success rates. While drug costs are high, patients can avoid serious complications of the infection.

When you check a patient in or do a preliminary evaluation of vital signs, look at the patient’s date of birth. Ask if he or she has had a Hepatitis C screening. Do the same with patients with tattoos or piercings, and patients on dialysis. One question may save a life!

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