by Karon Hicks and Seth Lamming
From PHN Issue 39, Winter/Spring 2019
Hepatitis C is a disease of the liver that is caused by a virus spread through blood. It is most commonly transmitted through shared needles or other equipment during injection drug use. You can also get hep C by being tattooed or pierced in prison or using other people’s personal care items like razors that may have infected blood on them. The risk for hep C transmission through sexual contact is low, but the risk increases if you have HIV, multiple partners, or a sexually transmitted illness. In general, anyone who has ever injected drugs, had a blood transfusion before 1992, or was born between 1945 and 1965 should request testing for hepatitis C.
Not everyone who gets exposed to hep C develops a chronic disease (chronic means it doesn’t go away). For about one-quarter of people who get the hep C virus, their bodies are able to clear the virus without medication. But usually, the virus develops into a chronic infection. Not everyone with chronic hep C experiences symptoms. Even if a person with hepatitis C has no symptoms, they can still pass on the virus to others. Symptoms could include yellowish eyes and skin, nausea, joint pain, fever, feeling tired, dark yellow urine, vomiting, stomach pain, loss of appetite, and gray or clay-colored stools. If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about being tested for hepatitis C.
How Hepatitis C Is Diagnosed
Symptoms of hep C are not specific, meaning they can also be symptoms of something else. The only way to know for sure that you have itis to get tested. In most facilities, you need to ask a medical provider for a hepatitis C blood test. They should also do a physical exam to look for any signs of liver damage. Usually, you get an antibody test first, which just tells you if you have ever been exposed to hepatitis C in your lifetime. You will need a blood test to confirm that you have chronic hepatitis C. Make sure to ask the provider if you are getting an antibody test (which cannot confirm disease) or a viral RNA test (confirms disease).
Complications of Hepatitis C
Sometimes, the virus goes unnoticed for many years, because most people who have hepatitis C have no symptoms. It is usually not discovered until it has caused serious liver damage. When left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, or liver failure. Cirrhosis is a condition in which your liver gets scarred and is permanently damaged. Healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissues, which cause the liver to stop working properly. As the liver functioning gets worse, you could experience symptoms including jaundice (yellowing of the whites of your eyes), dark urine, itchy skin, pain on your right side under your ribs, swelling in lower legs and feet, bloating from a buildup of fluid in the abdomen, and confusion, difficulty thinking and memory loss. Any of these symptoms are urgent reasons to seek health care. Liver failure, also called end-stage liver disease, is what happens when your liver can no longer perform its important responsibilities.
If you do receive treatment that cures your hep C, you can be re-infected with the virus. So, it is important to reduce your risk by not sharing drug use equipment, razors, toothbrushes, or nail or hair clippers, and by avoiding prison tattoos.
Living with Hepatitis C on the Inside
Hepatitis C medication can be hard to get. So, there are some ways for you to manage your hepatitis C until you can receive treatment. Once you have been diagnosed, be sure to talk about it with your doctor, so your liver and other possible complications can be monitored. If you know you have hep C, try to make sure you get plenty of sleep every night. Since the liver processes everything we eat, it is helpful to eat a well-balanced diet low in fat and sodium and high in protein and carbs. If possible, try to eat less processed food — such as french fries, bacon, deli meats, and snacks with added sugar or salt. If you can get unsalted almonds, fish, oatmeal, broccoli, coffee, hot green tea, spinach, and blueberries, these are good for your liver. And drinking lots of water will help your liver health.
Alcohol can cause the liver to fail more quickly. Most drugs, including over-the-counter, prescription and recreational, are processed through the liver, so check with your doctor on how your medications and supplements could affect it. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be really hard on your liver. Avoiding alcohol, cigarettes and recreational drugs, including other people’s meds, can protect your liver. If possible, getting vaccinated against hepatitis A and B can prevent more harm to your liver. If you feel ready to make a pledge to protect your liver health, try to do whatever you can to maintain good all-around physical and mental health. This includes managing stress, which could be through exercise, meditation, prayer, and/or resting when you are tired.