What causes hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. This virus enters the body through the bloodstream. It attaches to healthy cells in the liver and forces them to make more copies of the virus. Your body tries to fight the virus by making antibodies. The problem is the hepatitis C virus is very strong and it fights back against your natural defenses.
Who gets hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a virus and you can “catch” it. However, the only way to catch it is through contact with blood infected with hepatitis C. This blood must come in contact with your blood. That said, some people never discover how they contracted hepatitis C. But, here’s an example. Imagine someone with hepatitis C uses a needle to inject themselves. Tiny drops of blood remain on the needle. You then use the same needle to inject yourself. The blood on the needle comes in contact with your blood and you can get hepatitis C.
How else might someone else’s blood come in contact with your blood?
- Unclean equipment used for tattoos, piercings, pedicures or manicures
- Medical equipment that has not been properly sterilized
- Sharing needles while injecting drugs
- Sharing other items (toothbrush, nail clippers etc) with someone who is infected with hepatitis C
- Receiving a blood transfusion before 1990 (now all blood is carefully screened for hepatitis C)
- Sexual intercourse with someone infected with hepatitis C (although this is rare; you only have a 2-3% chance of contracting hepatitis C virus this way). Menstrual blood is known to carry hepatitis C. Women should avoid sex during this time.
- There is a small chance that hepatitis C can be passed from mother to baby during child birth.
Hepatitis C is more common in some parts of the world than others. It seems to be more common in some parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
Hepatitis C is best diagnosed by looking for the antibodies your body makes against the virus or by looking for the virus itself. Below are some descriptions of the tests used to diagnose hepatitis C.
What tests are done to diagnose hepatitis C?
- Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT) and Aspartate Aminotransferase (AST): These are liver enzymes that are found inside the cells of the liver. When a liver cell is injured or destroyed these enzymes escape into the blood causing the levels in the blood to rise. This is a blood test that measures the level of the enzymes AST and ALT in the blood. It is a general indicator of inflammation in the liver.
- Hepatitis C Antibody (Anti-HCV): The body makes hepatitis C antibodies to fight the virus. These antibodies remain in your blood for life. A positive anti-HCV test means that you’ve been exposed to the hepatitis C virus at some point in time.
- Hepatitis C RNA (HCV RNA): This test looks for the actual hepatitis C virus in the your blood. It can simply tell you if the virus is present or it can tell you the actual number of hepatitis C particles in your blood.
- Liver Ultrasound: A liver ultrasound is a relatively simple and painless test. The ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of your liver. It can show the shape and size of the liver. It can help us see if the liver is scarred, but not always.
- Liver Biopsy: A liver biopsy is a test that involves removing a small piece of liver tissue. This is done using a special needle. The liver tissue is then examined to: (a) help confirm the diagnosis of hepatitis C and rule out other causes; (b) provide details on the extent of inflammation and damage in the liver.
- Fibroscan: This is a relatively new test that is similar to an ultrasound. It shoots a special elastic wave through the liver. This test can determine the amount of fibrosis (scarring) in the liver. The test is painless and provides an immediate result. It takes about 10-15 minutes.
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