How Hep C affects the liver
The liver has many different and important tasks, including removal of waste products, fighting infection, controlling bleeding, digesting food and storing energy. It plays an essential role in maintaining good health.
If you have hepatitis C, it can damage your liver. In some cases, after more than 20 years, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis (severe scarring), liver failure and sometimes liver cancer.
Hep C infection can be either acute (recent) or chronic (long-lasting).
Acute hepatitis C refers to the clinical illness that someone may develop between 1 and 3 months immediately after being infected with the hep C virus. Most people do not experience symptoms during the acute phase.
However, around 3 in 10 people who have recently been infected will develop symptoms of acute hepatitis including fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, abdominal pains, nausea and vomiting, joint pains and, occasionally jaundice (with yellowing of the whites of the eyes, itchy skin and pale bowel motions).
For unknown reasons, about 1 out of 4 infected people will get rid of the virus in the first six months without any treatment.
Clearing the virus during the acute stage will not protect you from getting hep C again if you are re-exposed to the virus again.
You can catch hep C more than once.
About 3 out of 4 people cannot get rid of the virus after becoming infected and will develop a chronic (long-lasting) hep C infection.
Most people with hep C have no symptoms, or only vague symptoms, so people can be unaware of the infection.
Over many years the hep C virus can cause damage to the liver and result in serious long-term health problems.
The only way to know if you have hep C is to get tested.
The potential progression of hep C following exposure to the virus
Diagnosis of ACUTE hep C
What can happen if hepatitis C is left untreated?
Having hep C doesn’t automatically mean you’ll experience symptoms or develop liver disease. But the longer you live with it, the more likely you will have some sort of liver damage.
When the liver becomes damaged, it forms scar tissue. When the liver first becomes scarred, it is known as fibrosis. When the scarring increases so much that the liver can’t function properly, this is known as cirrhosis.
Of people with untreated chronic hep C, approximately 1 out of 5 will develop cirrhosis within 20 years. This risk is increased in people who are overweight or who have lifestyle risk factors such as heavy alcohol or cannabis use.
Untreated cirrhosis can lead to end stage liver disease, liver failure and an increased risk of liver cancer in some people.
Possible progression of liver damage
Successful treatment can reduce the risk of developing liver failure and liver cancer.
Why it’s so important to get tested
The hep C virus is highly contagious and can exist in amounts of blood that are too small to see. It is spread when infected blood enters your bloodstream and can exist in traces of blood outside the body for up to 3 weeks.
No matter the stage of hep C infection, symptoms may not appear even though liver damage could be happening. This is why it is important to get tested.
You can check if you have any risk factors or symptoms of hep C. And if you have any questions or want to get tested, see your doctor.
Early diagnosis and treatment can save lives.
Hepatitis C is one of several types of viral hepatitis
Other common hepatitis viruses include hep A and hep B. Although each virus can cause inflammation and damage the liver, they are passed on in different ways. There are also subtle differences in how each affects the liver.
Hep A is transmitted by contact with faeces of an infected person. It is mainly spread by contaminated water or food, especially when food has been washed with contaminated water.
Hep B is spread through contact with the blood or other body fluids (such as vaginal fluids or semen) of a person who has the virus. It can be spread from mother to child during childbirth, through sharing razors or toothbrushes, having unprotected sex, and sharing needles and syringes to inject drugs.
Hep C is spread when your blood comes into contact with even a small amount of infected blood.
The New Zealand Hepatitis Foundation has more information on viral hepatitis and treatments.
You can be vaccinated against hep A and hep B but there is NO vaccination for hep C.