Chronic hepatitis C also affects the liver and is caused by the hepatitis C virus. The virus infects liver cells and can cause severe inflammation of the liver with long-term complications. hepatitis C infections are common worldwide and it is estimated that about 3 per cent of the world's population has hepatitis C.
Acute versus chronic
Hepatitis C infection is usually acute initially but can develop into a chronic condition. Approximately 15 per cent to 45 per cent of people clear the virus completely during the acute phase and 55 per cent to 85 per cent of patients who have acute hepatitis C may develop further serious liver diseases, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The hepatitis C virus is usually spread through blood such as sharing needles or other equipment associated with injecting drug use. It can also be spread through blood infusions, organ transplants and although now less common, blood contamination in medical settings.
Most people with acute hepatitis C do not experience any symptoms and therefore, may risk spreading the virus. If there are symptoms, they usually occur anytime between two weeks to six months after initial exposure. Symptoms may include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay-coloured bowel movements, joint pain and jaundice.
Diagnosis and treatment
Diagnosis for hepatitis C is done through specific blood tests that are not typically done during regular physician exams. A screening test is typically done to look for "antibodies" of hepatitis C virus. If antibodies are found, separate blood tests are needed to determine if the infection has cleared or has become a chronic infection.
Acute hepatitis C cases typically go untreated as they do not have symptoms. For chronic cases, treatment options include antiviral medication. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C virus. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviours that can spread the infection, especially by sharing drug injection equipment.