What is hepatitis C going to do to me?
What are the signs and symptoms of hepatitis C?
Your liver is a very important organ in the body. It works 24 hours a day performing hundreds of vital functions for your body. All of the blood returning from the intestines to the heart passes through the liver.
When first infected with the hepatitis C virus some people don’t have any symptoms at all. If there are symptoms they can be quite mild and include tiredness, nausea, a lower appetite, and pain in the abdomen. Some people can become jaundiced (turn yellow) but this is not common. This first phase is known as acute hepatitis. About 1 in 5 (20%) people with acute hepatitis will spontaneously recover and clear the virus. However the other 4 out of 5 (80%) will develop chronic hepatitis C. This is a long term infection with the virus. Acute hepatitis lasts about 6 months and if the virus is still present after 6 months then it is called chronic hepatitis.
With chronic hepatitis C the virus continues to live in the liver. Some people can live with hepatitis C for many years without even knowing it. They might have minor symptoms like fatigue which can come and go over time. Lets say we take the 4 people who develop chronic hepatitis. About 3 out of 4 (75%) of them will only have mild to moderate damage to the liver over time. In the remaining 25% chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver, liver failure, and even liver cancer.
The damage from hepatitis C can take as little as 5 years or can take as long as 30 years.
The important point is many people live for years with chronic hepatitis C without ever knowing they’re infected. When symptoms do appear it is often during the late stages of infection when the liver has become seriously damaged. Newer treatments can cure hepatitis C and prevent liver damage. If you or someone you know is at risk for hepatitis C it is important to be tested.
Work and hepatitis C
People with hepatitis C should not be excluded from work. There is no evidence that people can get hepatitis C from normal contact. It is blood-to-blood contact that matters. If you have a job where blood-to-blood contact may occur (e.g., doctor/surgeon, dentist etc) then you should check with your college about the policy of employment and hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C can cause chronic tiredness. This may interfere with your ability to do your job. This should be discussed with your doctor or nurse.
Travel and hepatitis C
Traveling is still possible when you have hepatitis C. If you’re on treatment for hepatitis C you should do the following:
1. Take all of your medication with you.
2. Take extra medicine in case it gets lost or there are delays.
3. Keep your medicine in your carry-on luggage. Don’t put it in your suitcase.
4. If you’re taking injections then a letter may be required to take the medicine on-board an aircraft.
Make sure you have proper medical insurance and check the terms and conditions of the insurance. Talk to your doctor or nurse about your trip and write down their contact information. If you plan ahead of time, use some common sense, and take breaks when needed you’ll probably be fine. It is best to be organized prior to your trip to ensure a smooth, comfortable, and enjoyable time.
Sex and hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is not usually transmitted during regular sexual intercourse. However sexual intercourse where blood may be present (menstruation or anal sex) increases the risk. To avoid infection with hepatitis C it is best to use a condom during intercourse. Hepatitis C is not usually transmitted during oral sex unless blood is present.
If your partner has hepatitis C it is probably a good idea to get tested. You can speak with your local health care professional for more information.
Pregnancy and hepatitis C
With pregnancy and hepatitis C there are usually two questions: (1) How will the pregnancy affect hepatitis C?; (2) How will hepatitis C affect the baby?
How will the pregnancy affect hepatitis C?
Normally, hepatitis C will not affect pregnancy. Pregnancy should not make hepatitis C better or worse. If the liver is scarred (cirrhotic) there might be a greater chance of developing liver problems during pregnancy. It is important to be closely followed by a liver specialist during pregnancy.
How will hepatitis C affect the baby?
Hepatitis C can be passed to the baby at the time of birth. The risk depends on how much hepatitis C virus is present in the blood at this time. Women with high levels of hepatitis C virus in the blood are more likely to pass the virus on to their baby. Women who are also infected with HIV are more likely to pass the virus on to their baby.
Can I breastfeed if I have hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C has been detected in breast milk. However, there are no cases of a baby getting hepatitis C from breastfeeding. If the baby swallows breast milk with hepatitis C they won’t get infected with hepatitis C. Just like if you accidently swallow a fly, you aren’t going to become infested with flies!
However, if the nipples are bleeding or cracked, it is recommended that breastfeeding be stopped until they have healed, since transmission can occur through blood.
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