Health & Fitness

Dr. Wood: You might not know you have Hep C, which means you could be spreading it

ABCs of hepatitis: What’s the difference between A, B, and C?

Hepatitis is a disease characterized by inflammation of the liver. It comes in many forms, including hepatitis A, B and C. But what do those letter designations mean, and how do they differ from one another?
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Hepatitis is a disease characterized by inflammation of the liver. It comes in many forms, including hepatitis A, B and C. But what do those letter designations mean, and how do they differ from one another?

Hepatitis C, also known as Hep C, is the most common viral hepatitis, and infects an estimated 3.9 million people in the US. It is spread through contact with contaminated blood.

The word “hepatitis” means liver inflammation. The liver is an important organ that makes proteins, detoxifies biochemicals that our bodies make, and makes other biochemicals that our body needs for digestion.

Although hepatitis can be caused by certain medical conditions, such as heavy alcohol use, or even exposure to certain toxins, it is often caused by infection with one or more types of viruses.

The disease develops into a chronic infection in 75-85 percent of people who are exposed to the virus. For some, the infection can progress into cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver, or liver cancer.

There are few symptoms of the disease until it is well advanced — only about half of people who have Hep C know that they have it. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms of Hep C are:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Yellowing of the skin and/or whites of the eyes (jaundice)

  • Dark urine

  • Pale bowl movements

  • Fever

  • Joint pain

  • Bruising or bleeding easily

  • Fluid build-up in the stomach area

  • Weakness and fatigue

As with all diseases, the best option is to prevent infection in the first place. The best ways to help prevent Hep C include:

  • Practice safe sex by using condoms.

  • Be cautious about body piercings and tattoos by always asking about how equipment is cleaned, as well as confirming the shop uses sterile needles.

  • Don’t share items that could spread blood, such as toothbrushes, nail clippers, syringes, pipes, or razors.

It also is important to understand the risks for getting Hep C and to work to prevent the spread of infection. There is no vaccine to help prevent Hep C, so it’s very important to get screened for the disease if you have risk factors for getting infected. Fortunately, there are now medications that can cure Hep C.

If you know that you are infected, you can take steps to avoid spreading Hep C. As with many infections, early detection means better treatment, so getting screened is important. Certain groups of people have a higher incidence of infection or are at higher risk of becoming infected. The CDC recommends Hep C screening for the following people:

  • Everyone born from 1945 to 1965;

  • People who have injected drugs, including those who have only injected once many years ago;

  • Anyone who received clotting factor concentrates made before 1987;

  • Recipients of blood transfusions or solid organ transplants before July 1992;

  • Long-term hemodialysis patients;

  • People with known exposures to Hep C, such as health care workers or public safety workers who’ve had a needlestick;

  • People living with HIV;

  • Children born to mothers who have Hep C.

In addition, Thurston County Public Health and Social Services recommends screening for those who are on a pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment, as well as for people who have been incarcerated.

The state released a directive in 2018 describing steps needed to eliminate Hepatitis C in Washington by 2030 through combined public health efforts and a new medication purchasing approach. You can read that directive at: https://bit.ly/30vj3qx

To learn more about Hep C, and the resources available to those at risk, visit: The Olympia Free Clinic, Thurston County Syringe Services Program, and The Olympia Bupe Clinic.

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, woodr@co.thurston.wa.us, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.
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