Hepatitis C Is Contagious and Can Be Asymptomatic
Millions of people around the world are living with viral hepatitis – and many are unknowingly sharing the infection with others. That’s because you can live with the disease for years without feeling sick or experiencing symptoms. Here are five things you should know:
1. Hepatitis C is the most common type of chronic viral hepatitis in the United States.
Viral hepatitis is a group of infectious diseases that causes inflammation of the liver. There are five types of viral hepatitis, but the most common in the United States are hepatitis A, B and C.
If you travel internationally, you should be aware of your risks for hepatitis A. New cases most commonly result from American travelers who get infected while traveling to parts of the world where hepatitis A is common. Hepatitis A is spread by consuming food or water contaminated with fecal matter from an infected person, or by eating raw shellfish from water contaminated by sewage. Hepatitis A is an acute process. It never is a chronic disease and does not cause cirrhosis.
Prevention: The hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for children; people with certain risk factors; and international travelers. It requires two rounds of shots to be effective. Washing your hands and avoiding unsanitary drinking water or food washed with unsanitary water is also important. If you become infected, your body is usually able to clear the infection itself within a few weeks.
Hepatitis B is contagious and spreads through blood or other bodily fluids that contain small amounts of blood from an infected person. It can be transmitted at birth from an infected mother to a baby in many parts of the world (although rarely in the United States since pregnant mothers are checked for hepatitis B and newborns are treated). In the United States, the primary mode of transmission is by sexual transmission. Patients who share needles when using drugs also can transmit the infection. Hepatitis B can become a chronic infection and is an important cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer in afflicted individuals.
Prevention: Doctors recommend that all children get the hepatitis B vaccine. If you become infected, hepatitis B can range from a mild illness to a serious condition requiring hospitalization, and in some cases, it can become a chronic, lifelong problem.
When it comes to hepatitis, the one that is most concerning in the United States is hepatitis C. Most people become infected with this contagious disease through blood-to-blood contact resulting from sharing needles or syringes. Other individuals that received blood products prior to the year 1990 also are at increased risk since the diagnostic test became available at that time and donated blood prior to that time could have been contaminated. Hepatitis C is rarely transmitted sexually, but when it is it is most commonly via anal receptive intercourse. Hepatitis C is infrequently transmitted from mother to child. Hepatitis C commonly is a chronic infection and is an important cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Prevention: There is no vaccination, and the infection often remains in the body, resulting in chronic disease and long-term liver problems.
2. You might not know you have it.
Nearly half of people living with hepatitis C don’t know they have it. That’s because most people live with the disease for years without feeling sick, or experiencing only minor symptoms such as fatigue. Frequently, the only indication of hepatitis C is an abnormal liver blood test panel. If you think you have been exposed to hepatitis C, be sure to talk to your physician.
3. There is a test for hepatitis C.
The hepatitis C antibody test determines if a person has been infected with the virus. A positive, or reactive result, means antibodies were found and you were infected with the hepatitis C virus at some point in time. Additional tests are required to confirm if you have active infection at present.
4. Hepatitis C can harm your liver.
Your liver, which is located in the right upper area of the abdomen, processes nutrients, filters blood and fights infection. Left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and other serious liver damage.
5. “Baby Boomers” are at higher risk.
If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you might not realize that you are more likely to have hepatitis C. The reason is that intravenous drug use (sharing needles) was popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and this practice occurred more commonly in young adults that were born between 1945-1965. Also, blood transfusions in the 1960’s and 1970’s not infrequently spread hepatitis C since the diagnostic test for hepatitis C was not yet discovered and blood could not be screened. All “baby boomers” should have a one-time test for hepatitis C to rule out infection.
Hepatitis C is a tricky disease. It’s highly contagious, very dangerous and usually exists without presenting any symptoms at all. While hepatitis C can be transmitted in many different ways, it’s important to do what you can to help prevent contracting or spreading the disease, whenever possible, such as avoiding sharing needles at any time. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you have questions, fears or would like to be tested.