Five most common hepatitis C questions

Five most common hepatitis C questions

Hepatitis C questions that you always wanted – but never dared – to ask

hepatitis C questions

Posing a hepatitis C question to a doctor is the best way to learn, but if it’s your friend or a family member who is suffering from hepatitis, you might not have an occasion to talk to a doctor. We figured out the answers to some hepatitis C questions for you, so that you won’t feel dumb or poorly informed if the conversation starts. (If you are reading this page, it probably means that hepatitis C is not an empty word for you – and THE conversation will start sooner or later).

Hepatitis C question #1: Is it contagious?

This is one of the most common hepatitis C questions.

Yes, it is contagious. But mostly only through blood.

HCV is transmitted primarily through large or repeated percutaneous exposures to infectious blood. Center for Disease Control and Prevention

In other words, you need to be exposed to contaminated blood through a cut in the skin in order to catch the virus. Such “exposure” includes:

  • Injection drug use (the most common way of transmission in the US today),
  • Needlestick injuries (in the labs or hospitals, for example),
  • Surgeries, dentist intervention, blood transfusions or organs transplants (mostly before 1992, when the routine screening was introduced in the US and majority of the developed countries).

Sometimes, much more infrequently, hepatitis C can also be transmitted by:

  • An HCV-infected mother giving birth to a child,
  • Sharing blood-contaminated personal items (razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers),
  • Having sex with HCV-infected person (especially men having sex with men, and especially in co-infection with HIV),
  • Other invasive procedures that were not done according to sanitary regulations (piercings, tattoos, injections in the context of hepatitis C outbreaks).

However, these later transmission ways are very inefficient means of transmission, meaning that the contamination chances are very low. The chances increase in case of repeated risky behavior – such as constant sharing the razor with infected person.

Hepatitis C virus can survive outside of human body (inside the syringe or on the razor, for instance) for several weeks!

Hepatitis C is much less contagious than hepatitis B; luckily, a vaccine exists for hepatitis B. Also, the risk of transmitting hepatitis C increases with the viral load – a number of copies of the virus in the infected person’s blood – especially when it comes to mother-child contamination during labor.

Hepatitis C question #2: Is there a hepatitis C vaccine?

This is another very common hepatitis C question. The answer is no, there is no vaccine against hepatitis C. The main problem is that the virus undergoes the transformations in the human body, so the human immune system doesn’t react to the virus straight away as it would with some other diseases. For the same reason, people who had hepatitis C and then were cured – either clearing the virus spontaneously or by following a hepatitis C treatment – are not immune and can catch the virus again if they are exposed to it.

Research into the development of a vaccine is ongoing, but nothing really promising yet.

It is highly recommended that people infected with hepatitis C get vaccinated against hepatitis B, because the harm caused to the liver from both simultaneous infections is increased.

Hepatitis C question #3: Can I give it to my family and friends?

Technically the answer is yes, but this does not happen very often. In the most cases when it happens it is through blood exposure with an infected friend or family member.

If you dispose of sanitary napkins correctly, cover the bleeding sores and don’t share razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers – or needles and syringes – with friends, it is highly unlikely that they get a virus from you.

Hepatitis C is not transmitted by sharing food and kitchen utensils, such as glasses and spoons. It is also not transmitted by hugging, kissing, sneezing, coughing or shaking hands.

If you discover that you have hepatitis C, it is not really necessary for all your family to get tested – unless there were some specific risks. However, if you think that you might have had hepatitis C while being pregnant, it is highly recommended that your child gets tested.

Hepatitis C question #4: What about my sexual partners?

Scientific studies show that even though sexual transmission is technically possible, the chances are very low. HCV transmission has not been demonstrated in heterosexual couples monitored over time, according to CDC. It means that condom use in stable monogamous relationship between a man and a woman is not required.

We talk about stable relationship, because to convey the study, the couple has to be monitored over the time – and therefore, there can only be scientific evidence for the stable couples. Again, we talk about monogamous relationship, because if either of the partners in the study had other partners, he or she could have caught the HCV from them – so again, carrying out the study and getting valid results would be impossible in this case.

Obviously, when it comes to spontaneous intercourse with a random partner, people infected with hepatitis C should protect their partners – and themselves, for this matter – from hepatitis C, hepatitis B, HIV and other diseases by wearing a condom. It is especially important to wear a condom when it comes to the intercourse between HCV-infected men, and especially if they are co-infected with HIV. The risk of sexual transmission for this case is much higher.

Hepatitis C question #5: What are the symptoms of HCV?

In many cases the chronic hepatitis C infection goes without symptoms, and this is why so often it remains unnoticed. Over the time the infection leads to mild to severe liver disease, including liver cirrhosis and cancer.

The lack of symptoms in the early stage of chronic disease is the reason why many people are identified as HCV-positive during routine blood test (when their liver enzyme levels such as ALT, AST are elevated) or during blood donation.

Nevertheless, chronic hepatitis infection is always preceded by the acute one, which in some cases is easier to spot. If a person is to develop hepatitis C symptoms, he or she will usually have them between 4 and 12 weeks following the exposure.

Bonus question: Who should be tested for HCV infection?

The testing is recommended for anyone who has increased risk of having hepatitis C. This includes:

  • People born before 1965,
  • People who received blood transfusions, organ transplants or clotting factor concentrates, especially before 90’s,
  • Injection drug users, even if they only used it once, and even if it was long time ago,
  • Patients who had long-term hemodialysis treatment,
  • People with known HCV exposure, such as nurses involved into needlestick incident while working with HCV-positive blood,
  • People who show the symptoms of liver disease, such as jaundice or abnormal liver enzymes test,
  • Children born to HCV-positive mothers.

In the latter case, to avoid a false positive test triggered by mother’s antibodies the child shouldn’t be tested until the age of 18 months.

Unlike hepatitis B, hepatitis C is less contagious and the transmission chance during the labor is low. Also, there are no vaccine and no preventive measures that could be taken to avoid this transmission. So, despite what is commonly believed – and this is another commonly asked hepatitis C question – routine HCV testing of pregnant women is not necessary (unless they are in one of the high-risk groups mentioned above).

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