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What is hepatitis C?

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Hepatitis A, B, and C

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2.4 million suffer from chronic hepatitis C (though the numbers could be higher) — yet many do not know about their condition until it’s too late
  • Hepatitis C is potentially life-threatening because it can progress to liver failure and liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, but there are diagnostic tests and natural treatment options that may be helpful for people who are struggling with HCV

According to a 2019 study in the journal Hepatology, 2.4 million Americans suffer from chronic hepatitis C1 — yet many of them are unaware of their condition until it's too late.2 But what is hepatitis C, why does it become a chronic condition and how can you avoid falling victim to this illness?

Defining hepatitis C: Facts you should know

The term "hepatitis" is derived from two Latin words: "hepat," which means "liver," and "itis," meaning inflammation.3 Therefore, hepatitis simply means "liver inflammation." Hepatitis C, sometimes called Hep C or HCV,4 is one of five types of hepatitis, with the other four being hepatitis A, B, D and E.5

The primary differences between the various forms of hepatitis is the type of virus that causes these diseases, as well as how they are transmitted. Each affects the liver differently. Hepatitis A manifests only as a newly occurring or acute infection and does not become chronic, even without treatment. The CDC dubs it as a "short-term" infection.

Hepatitis B and C, although they also begin as an acute infection, can progress into chronic ailments with long-term effects on the liver. They require treatment.6 Hepatitis D occurs only in those who have hepatitis B, and the two together can be quite devastating. Hepatitis E spreads through contaminated food and water.7

EMedicineHealth notes that HCV has multiple subtypes, which are known as 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.8

A more recent study, however, expands this classification. According to the researchers of the 2014 study, published in the journal Hepatology, there are seven hepatitis genotypes and 67 subtypes.9

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.10 In fact, it's possible to have hepatitis C for years, or even decades, and not know it11 — no wonder it earned the moniker "the silent killer."12

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. Symptoms that may occur a few weeks after being infected include:13

  • Fatigue
  • Fever — 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) or higher
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Stomachache

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.14 But most people — about 75% to 85% — with the virus will go on to develop chronic hepatitis C,15 meaning the disease will not go away on its own. Instead, it will progress into a more dangerous condition.

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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.16

Intravenous drug abuse (sharing of contaminated needles) is the most common way that the hepatitis C virus is spread.17 Medical News Today notes that hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne disease in the U.S.,18 and children born to mothers infected with the virus may be at risk.19

But is hepatitis C classified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? It could be. According to WebMD, getting in contact with an infected person's blood, such as those from genital sores or cuts or through menstruation, can put you at risk.20

The CDC notes that although the risk of transmission through intercourse is low, a person's risk can increase if he or she has a sexually transmitted disease or HIV, engages in frequent sex or has multiple sexual partners.21 There is no strong evidence that HCV can be spread through oral sex, but if you or your partner has a crack or break in the skin, it may be possible to be infected with the virus.22

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.23 However, remember that prevention — and following a healthy lifestyle — is the best way to ensure that hepatitis C can be controlled.

MORE ABOUT HEPATITIS C

Hepatitis C: Introduction

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C in Pregnancy

How Do You Get Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C Duration

Is Hepatitis C Contagious?

Hepatitis C Causes

Hepatitis C Types

Hepatitis C Symptoms

Hepatitis C Treatment

Hepatitis C Prevention

Hepatitis C Diet

Hepatitis C FAQ

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