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What is Hepatitis C? Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

by | Last updated Sep 29, 2020 at 11:16AM | Published on Sep 29, 2020 | Health and Wellness

Hepatitis C Guide

About 2.4 to 4.7 million people in the United States are infected with hepatitis C. But many call hepatitis C the silent killer because it causes few symptoms until the disease is advanced. Unfortunately, among those in addiction recovery, hepatitis C is a common disease. Let’s learn more about hepatitis C, its causes, and how today, those with it can find treatment.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C caused by the hepatitis C virus or HCV, sometimes called hep C, is a liver disease that can lead to severe liver damage. Today, most people struggling with hepatitis C got the virus by sharing needles or equipment used to prepare and inject intravenous drugs.

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease, especially injecting drugs.

Exposures Among Cases of Acute Hepatitis C in the US Graphic

Causes of HCV

As mentioned earlier, the most common cause of hepatitis C is through contact with the blood or the infected person’s body fluids. Here are some scenarios that can cause a hep C infection:

  • Sharing drug-injection equipment
  • Birth, approximately 6% of infants born to infected mothers will get hep C
  • Unprotected sex with an infected person
  • Unregulated tattoos or body piercings
  • Sharing personal items like nail clippers or razors
  • Blood transfusions
  • Organ transplants

However, it’s essential to understand that you won’t get hepatitis C from sharing eating utensils, breastfeeding, kissing, holding hands, hugging, coughing, or sneezing. It also doesn’t spread through food or water. 

Hepatitis C Stages

Stages of Hepatitis C

The hepatitis virus affects people differently. While most hep C cases are short-term, it can also affect some people long-term. The virus causes a progressive disease that worsens when people don’t seek treatment.

  • The Incubation Period: This is the time between exposure and the beginning of the disease, anywhere between 14 to 80 days
  • Acute Hepatitis C: Considered a short-term illness that lasts for six months after the virus enters the body. Some people can get rid of the virus by then
  • Chronic Hepatitis C: If the body doesn’t clear the virus on its own, it becomes a long-term infection that escalates to severe health issues
  • Cirrhosis: Hep C leads to inflammation that long-term replaces healthy liver cells with scar tissue, causing cirrhosis. Those who have HIV or struggle with alcohol abuse usually speed up this process
  • Liver Cancer: Cirrhosis makes people more prone to have liver cancer down the line without treatment. It’s essential to have regular check-ups with a doctor because this stage causes very mild symptoms.
Hepatitis C Symptoms Graphic

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

The problem with hep C is that most people will live with the virus without showing any signs. Not only does this place them at risk of not getting treatment, but during this time, they can also spread the virus without knowing. However, after someone gets infected with HCV, usually two weeks to 6 months after the virus enters the bloodstream, they’ll experience some symptoms that last for 2 to 12 weeks. The most common symptoms include:

  • Clay-colored poop
  • Dark urine
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Yellow eyes
  • Joint pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting

Some people experience acute symptoms of hepatitis C. Usually. They’re the ones with an advanced stage of the disease that stayed long-term. More acute symptoms include:

  • Gallstones
  • Kidney failure
  • Easy bleeding and bruising
  • Intense itching
  • Muscle loss
  • Problems with memory
  • Poor concentration
  • Spider-like veins on the skin
  • Vomiting blood
  • Weight loss
  • Fluid buildup in the abdominal cavity or legs

Many people eventually develop chronic liver disease, ranging from mild to severe, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. Chronic liver disease in people with hepatitis C usually happens slowly, without any signs or symptoms, over several decades. However, for alcohol abusers, this can happen sooner. 

Who's at Risk of Getting Hepatitis C

Risk Factors of HCV

While anyone can get hepatitis C, some people are more likely to struggle with the infection than others. The following individuals are more likely to get it at some point in their lifetime:

  • People who use or used intravenous drugs, even those who used them once years ago
  • People with HIV infection
  • Anyone who received transfusions or organ transplants, including those who received a clotting factor concentrate before 1987, had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
  • Health care, medical, and public safety personnel exposed to the blood of someone with hepatitis C
  • People with symptoms of liver disease
  • Children born to mothers who have hepatitis C
  • Anyone who is or has been in prison
  • Someone who got a tattoo or piercing with unclean equipment

Since the pool of people who can get hepatitis C is so broad, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends testing for:

  • Anyone 18 years of age or older
  • Pregnant women
  • Current intravenous drug users
  • Previous intravenous drug users
  • People with HIV
  • Those with abnormal liver tests or liver disease
  • People on hemodialysis

And yes, the CDC recommends getting a regular blood test for hepatitis C. Especially for people who currently use intravenous drugs or other drug preparation equipment. You can be infected again, even if you have cleared the virus or were successfully treated and cured. This is why people who currently inject and share needles, syringes, or other drug preparation equipment, along with those who receive maintenance hemodialysis, should be tested for hep C regularly.

Hepatitis C Treatment Options

Hepatitis C has changed tremendously in recent years. While there’s no vaccine for hep C, some medications can help with symptoms and manage the disease. Current treatment options involve oral pills over 8-12 weeks to help with almost 90% of the symptoms.  

The current FDA-approved medications to treat it include:

  • Elbasvir-Grazoprevir (Zepatier): a once-daily pill that has cured almost 97% of those treated
  • Glecaprevir-Pibrentasvir (Mavyret): a shorter treatment cycle for those with HCV that don’t have cirrhosis and haven’t been treated already
  • Ledipasvir-Sofosbuvir (Harvoni): a treatment of 8-12 weeks that can cure most people
  • Sofosbuvir (Sovaldi): part of a complete treatment that includes other medications and requires 12-24 weeks of treatment
  • Sofosbuvir-Velpatasvir (Epclusa): another daily pill that can help cure the disease in 12 weeks
  • Sofosbuvir-Velpatasvir-Voxilaprevir (Vosevi): a combination approved to treat adults with chronic HCV, either with no cirrhosis, or early cirrhosis

However, if the hepatitis virus was not treated, it’s possible to struggle with severe health problems like cancer or cirrhosis. For these conditions, a liver transplant might be the only viable treatment choice.

Homeopathic Remedies for Hepatitis C

Like with many diseases, some people try homeopathic remedies and home remedies to manage HCV symptoms. However, these treatments are not FDA-approved, and there’s little to no evidence that points to the efficacy of these treatments. The most common ones include:

  • Vitamin D supplements
  • Milk thistle
  • Licorice root
  • Lactoferrin
  • Schisandra
  • Thymus extract 
  • Zinc 
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) oil
  • Colloidal silver
  • Probiotics 

Finding Help

As you can see, hepatitis C is a common disease among drug addicts and alcoholics. Because there’s no vaccine to prevent hepatitis, the only defense mechanisms are using a latex condom during sex, not sharing personal items, being careful when getting a tattoo, body piercing, or manicure. But beyond that, seeking substance abuse treatment to stop using drugs that can put you at risk of infection. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, seek help immediately. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our comprehensive addiction treatment programs can help you start walking towards recovery. We’ll look at your unique needs and create a treatment plan that sets you up for success so that you can enjoy long-term recovery and sobriety.

Lighthouse Editorial Team

Lighthouse Editorial Team

Our editorial team includes content experts that contribute to Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s blog. Editors and medical experts review our blogs for accuracy and relevance. We consistently monitor the latest research from SAMHSA and NIDA to provide you with the most comprehensive addiction-related content.
Medical Disclaimer:

Lighthouse Recovery Institute aims to improve the quality of life for anyone struggling with substance use or mental health disorder. We provide fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their outcomes. The material we publish is researched, cited, edited, and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide in our posts is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be used in place of the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider.

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