Screening for Hepatitis C Infection Can Save Your Life

Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). In most cases, acute HCV infection passes unnoticed, becoming a chronic infection in 80% of cases, increasing the risk of developing serious complications:

  • 45% will eventually develop cirrhosis: irreversible scarring of the liver
  • HCV causes death in about 1-5% of those chronically infected who develop cirrhosis or liver cancer.

How is Hepatitis C Virus Transmitted? 

HCV is transmitted through contact with contaminated blood. People at high-risk of getting an HCV infection are drug-users (by injecting themselves with a used needle) and healthcare workers (by having accidental needle sticks).

Other less common ways of transmission include blood transfusion, piercing or tattooing in unsanitary settings, receiving dialysis treatment, transmission from mother to foetus, and unprotected sexual intercourse.

What Can I Do to Prevent HCV Infection?

– Avoid sharing needles or other potentially contaminated objects (such as used toothbrushes or razors from another person).

– Use condoms when having sexual intercourse.

– Avoid tattooing or piercing your skin; and if you do so, make sure is under appropriate sterile conditions in a professional center, with new needles and disinfection of the skin.

– If you work in a health-care facility, follow safety measures to avoid accidental exposure to contaminated blood.

How is Hepatitis C Diagnosed?

HCV screening must be done in all high-risk individuals and in people who are having symptoms or signs suggestive of HCV infection. An HCV antibody test is usually the first step for diagnosis.

A negative HCV antibody result means that you don’t have the virus. However, the test must be repeated every 6 to 12 months in high-risk people because antibodies for the virus may have not yet been developed by the body if the infection was recent (less than 6 months ago).

A positive HCV antibody test result indicates that there has been an infection, but it doesn’t specify if the infection is active or resolved. A confirmatory HCV RNA test should then be performed and if this test result is positive, active HCV infection is confirmed and treatment must be commenced.

What is the Treatment for HCV Infection?

With a combination of newer direct acting antivirals (DAAs) and established treatment, there is a 90% chance of curing HCV infection. New treatment is highly effective, works faster, and has less side effect as compared to old treatments.

In some cases, when the infection has severely damaged the liver, a liver transplant surgery may be necessary.

Other recommendations that you should take in consideration for preventing further liver damage are:

– Abstain from injecting drugs, and if not possible, use sterile needles each time.

– Ceasing alcohol intake

– Maintain a healthy weight

– Avoid over-the-counter drugs

– Avoid eating fatty foods

– Get vaccinated against hepatitis A virus and hepatitis B virus

HCV Infection and Liver Disease Friendly Diet

People with HCV infection may have poor appetite (from the infection or the treatment), at risk of liver disease and diabetes, so their diet should take into consideration:

  1. Avoid sugar and salt
  2. Avoid fat, to lose weight and prevent progression of fatty liver (use unsaturated fat like olive, fish oil, nut, seeds
  3. Avoid undernourishment, with a balanced diet of all food groups (eating healthily)
  4. Vitamins and minerals: eat fruits and vegetables; leafy green vegetables can cut down fatty liver but watch for iron overload
  5. Proteins: replace a portion of simple carbohydrates with protein (fish, tofu, beans, eggs)
  6. Complex carbohydrates: brown rice, whole wheat, oatmeal, whole oats
  7. Avoid iron rich foods: fortified cereals, red meat and liver
  8. Supplements can be useful but speak to your doctor as some may interact with medications you may be taking
  9. At all costs, avoid alcohol completely to allow the liver the opportunity to heal
  10. Eat in small portions regularly during the day
  11. At least 64 ounces of filtered water, avoid flavoured drinks

When Should I See a Doctor?

Most people with HCV don’t know they are infected because the disease is mostly asymptomatic until late stages, so if you identify yourself among the high-risk group, you should see your doctor.

You should also seek medical help if you present some of the following signs or symptoms:

– Nausea

– Fatigue

– Hyporexia (appetite loss)

– Joint pain

– Itching

– Abdominal pain

– Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)

– Dark-coloured urine

– Light-coloured stools

– Ascites (accumulation of large quantities of fluid in the abdomen)

– Mental confusion

Hepatitis C virus produces an asymptomatic disease in most people, which is transmitted through contaminated blood; this is the reason why it is commonly diagnosed when liver damage is already advanced, and the infection has already become chronic.

Prevention is of utmost importance to avoid the complications related to this virus, like for instance hepatic cirrhosis (liver scarring) or liver cancer. Since an HCV vaccine is not yet available, screening is crucial to early detection of this virus, especially in the high-risk population, which mostly comprises drug-users and healthcare professionals.

The treatment goal is to prevent further liver damage by eradicating the infection with a combination of different drugs, or in advanced cases, a liver transplant may be needed. If you have been diagnosed, certain lifestyle habit changes can also help achieve this, for instance ceasing alcohol intake and stop taking non-prescribed over-the-counter drugs.

If you’re interested in learning more about Hepatitis C and screening, read on more about it in our biomarker post here!

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