Hepatitis is the medical term used to describe an inflammation of the liver. Although heavy alcohol use, prolonged exposure to toxins, and certain medications can all cause the kind of sustained inflammatory response that leads to hepatitis, most cases are caused by a viral infection.
Hepatitis C is an inflammatory liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Although it can be an acute, short-term illness for some, approximately four in five people who contract HVC develop a chronic infection that can cause severe liver damage without proper treatment.
As with any serious infectious disease, the key to preventing hepatitis C is understanding how it’s spread so you can take specific precautionary measures to avoid it. Here’s what you should know.
Hepatitis C awareness
Hepatitis A, B, and C are the three most common forms of viral hepatitis in the United States. Of these, hepatitis C is both the most widespread and the most problematic — an estimated 2.4 million Americans are currently living with the disease, which ranks as a leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants.
Roughly half of people with hepatitis C don’t know they have it, largely because the infection tends to remain asymptomatic until it’s caused significant liver damage. In fact, many people with hepatitis C receive their diagnosis years or even decades after their initial infection.
More than 44,000 people become newly infected with hepatitis C each year in the U.S., and they all have one thing in common: they contracted the virus when their blood somehow came in contact with an infected person’s blood.
Hepatitis C risk factors
Prior to 1992, when blood screening technology and safety were vastly improved, hepatitis C was commonly transmitted through routine blood transfusions and life-saving organ transplants.
Today, most cases of hepatitis C are caused by using shared needles or syringes to inject illicit drugs. Health care workers may be exposed to the virus through an accidental needle stick while on the job.
It’s also possible to contract hepatitis C from using a personal care item that may have come in contact with infected blood, such as someone else’s razor or toothbrush. Getting a piercing or a tattoo in an unsanitary setting can also increase your risk of catching the virus.
Although it doesn’t happen as often, hepatitis C can also be transmitted through unprotected intercourse with an infected person.
Hepatitis C prevention
Avoiding hepatitis C is relatively straightforward, given that it’s not transmitted through kissing, hugging, or holding hands, just as you can’t catch it from an infected person’s saliva or mucus. And unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis C isn’t spread through contaminated food or water.
Although there are vaccines to help prevent hepatitis A and B, there’s still no immunization against hepatitis C. For now, the only way to prevent the illness is by avoiding contact with an infected person’s blood. Taking the following precautions can go a long way in reducing your risk of infection:
- Never share needles or syringes if you inject drugs
- Don’t use other people’s personal care items
- Don’t share your personal care items with anyone else
- Always use a condom when you have intercourse
When you’re considering a new tattoo or piercing, be sure to look for a reputable shop that can show you how they clean their equipment and ensure their needles are sterile. If you’re a health care worker who handles needles, you can reduce your risk of accidental needle sticks by following standard safety practices.
Hepatitis C screening
Because three in four people with hepatitis C are baby boomers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a one-time hepatitis C blood screening for everyone born between 1945 and 1965.
If you’re at an increased risk of infection, getting tested is the best way to either put your fears to rest or ensure you receive a timely diagnosis and proper treatment. Left undetected and untreated, hepatitis C can lead to serious complications, including liver cancer and chronic liver disease (cirrhosis).
To learn more about hepatitis C and how you can prevent it, call your nearest Hardeep M. Singh, MD office in Orange or Irvine, California today, or click online to schedule a visit with Dr. Singh any time.