According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2.7 million and 3.9 million Americans suffer from chronic hepatitis C1 — yet many of them are not aware of their condition until it’s too late. What exactly is hepatitis C, why does it become a chronic condition and how can you avoid falling victim to this illness?
Defining Hepatitis C: Basic Facts You Should Know
The term “hepatitis” is actually derived from two Latin words: “hepat,” which means “liver,” and “itis,” meaning inflammation.2 Therefore, hepatitis simply means “liver inflammation.” Hepatitis C, sometimes simply called Hep C or HCV, is one of the three types of hepatitis, with the other two being hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
The primary difference between hepatitis A, B and C is the type of virus that causes these diseases, as well as how they are transmitted. All three types affect the liver differently.
Hepatitis A manifests only as a newly occurring or acute infection and does not become chronic, even without treatment. Meanwhile, hepatitis B and C, although they also begin as an acute infection, can progress into chronic ailments with long-term effects on the liver, and do require treatment.3
HCV has multiple subtypes, which are known as genotypes. These are genotypes 1a, 1b, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. There are primary differences between these subtypes, and they play an important role in HCV infection treatment.4
Warning: Hepatitis C Is a Traitor Disease
Hepatitis C is a dangerous disease because people who are affected with it usually have no or only very mild symptoms during its early stages.
Only when symptoms manifest or significant liver damage shows up (which can take decades to appear) will they be alerted to their condition. In fact, it’s possible to have hepatitis C for years, or even decades, and not know it — no wonder it earned the moniker “the silent killer.”5
Some of the common signs of hepatitis C are often confused with other conditions, which is why some people ignore them rather than having themselves checked. These symptoms include:6
• Muscle aches and fever (similar to having the flu)
• Loss of appetite
• Abdominal pain
• Feeling and being sick
However, there are some people who get HCV only for a short time, and then get better without treatment. This is known as acute hepatitis C, with symptoms typically lasting for only two to 12 weeks.7 But most people — about 75 to 85 percent of those with the virus — will go on to develop chronic hepatitis C, meaning the disease will not go away on its own — and will progress into a more dangerous condition.8
Is Hepatitis C Contagious?
Fortunately, HCV cannot be passed on through casual contact (sneezing, kissing, hugging or sharing utensils). However, keep in mind that it can still be transmitted through blood-to-blood contact.9
Intravenous drug abuse (sharing of contaminated needles) is the most common way that the hepatitis C virus is spread.10 Hepatitis C is also known as the most common blood-borne disease in the United States,11 and children born to mothers infected with the virus may be at risk.12
But is hepatitis C classified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? The truth is that even if the virus may be transmitted through sexual contact, it is not an STD. The risk of transmission through intercourse is low, although a person’s risk may increase if he or she has a sexually transmitted disease or HIV, engage in frequent sex or has multiple sexual partners.13 There is no evidence that HCV can be spread through oral sex.14
Prevention and Proper Treatment Are Key
Hepatitis C is potentially life-threatening because it can progress to liver failure and liver cancer (also known as hepatocellular carcinoma). The good news is that there are diagnostic tests and natural treatment options that may be helpful for people living with hepatitis C.15 However, remember that prevention — and following a healthy lifestyle — is the best way to ensure that hepatitis C will not damage your wellbeing.