Hepatitis C is a viral infection that damages your liver over time. A chronic infection can lead to serious scarring of the liver called cirrhosis, as well as liver cancer and liver failure, according to the American Liver Foundation (ALF). Hepatitis C treatment used to be a lengthy process that was not very effective. Now,groundbreaking (but costly) new medicines have turned the viral infection into a curable condition; hepatitis C is considered “cured” when the virus is not detectable at 12 and 24 weeks after treatment ends.
Here are 10 essential facts you should know about hepatitis C:
1. Hepatitis C affects millions of Americans.
About 2.7 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “It is called the ‘silent epidemic’ because people can be infected for 30 or more years and have no idea they have it,” says Camilla Graham, MD, infectious disease specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Early on in a hepatitis C infection, you may feel nausea and fatigue – symptoms that don’t necessarily prompt doctors to test you for hepatitis C, she adds.
By the time routine blood tests reveal elevated enzymes, your liver may already be damaged. At that point your doctor may test your blood for the presence of the hepatitis C virus, says Ibrahim Hanouneh, MD, hepatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
2. The most common hepatitis C strain in the United States is genotype 1.The hepatitis C virus is diverse and includes six commonly-seen types. About 75 percent of hepatitis C cases here are genotype 1, and 12 percent are genotype 2, with fewer cases of genotypes 3 to 6.
3. You might not realize you have serious liver damage.
In some cases, by the time you have hepatitis C symptoms, life-threatening damage has already occurred, Dr. Graham says. Of every 100 people with a chronic hepatitis C infection, 5 to 20 will eventually develop cirrhosis, according to the CDC. One to 5 percent will die of either cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Symptoms of liver damage and end-stage hepatitis C disease include jaundice, extreme fatigue, weight loss, weakness, severely itchy skin, confusion, and a buildup of abdominal fluid.
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