What causes Hepatitis C?
HCV is most often spread by contact with the blood of infected people, especially if you have an open cut or puncture wound that would allow the virus to get past your skin and into your bloodstream. Here are some causes Hepatitis C:
• Getting a blood transfusion before 1992 or receiving blood clotting products before 1987. Those are the dates when screening for HCV infected donor blood and blood products went into effect. That’s why Boomers are especially encouraged to get tested for this “silent menace,” which can be chronic with no symptoms for many years until liver damage has occurred.
• Being the recipient of an HCV-infected organ transplant before 1992 when screening went into effect.
• Having long-term kidney dialysis treatment with a machine is contaminated with HCV-infected blood.
• Sharing a needle, even once, for injecting recreational drugs.
• Inhaling recreational drugs through a straw or inhalation tube that was used by someone infected with HCV.
• Sharing common household items that have HCV-infected blood on them. The list could include razors, nail clippers, and even toothbrushes if you pick up the wrong one by mistake.
• Being stuck accidentally by an HCV-infected needle in a healthcare setting. This is a particular concern for healthcare workers.
• Having frequent contact with HCV-infected people, which up the chances of touching infected blood. Again, this is concern for healthcare workers but be careful as well if there’s an HCV-infected person in your household. Cover all cuts with band aids and wipe up spilled blood with a bleach and water solution while wearing rubber gloves.
• Going to an unlicensed tattoo parlor or body piercing establishment where equipment may not be sterile and may be used on other patrons after being used on someone infected with HCV.
Hepatitis C can be spread in the following ways, although these incidences are relatively rare:
• An HCV-infected mother passing the virus to her baby during the birthing process.
• Having sexual contact with someone infected with HCV, especially if skin is broken anywhere that touches the other person.
The good news is that HCV cannot be spread through any of the following:
• The air – so don’t worry about sneezing and coughing
• Unbroken skin – so feel free to hug, kiss, and hold hands with a loved one who is HCV-infected.
• Shaking hands with friends and colleagues.
To reiterate in digest fashion, these are the factors that raise your risk of a Hepatitis C infection:
• Having a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992.
• Getting blood clotting products prior 1987.
• Being on long-term kidney dialysis treatment, which may mean contact with contaminated machines.
• Getting a tattoo at an unlicensed parlor.
• Having body piercing done at an unlicensed establishment.
• Sharing needles or straws to inject or inhale illicit drugs.
• Having sex with partners who have hepatitis C when skin is broken.
Your PCP can do the initial testing, but you will probably be referred to a hepatologist – a specialist in liver diseases. Be prepared with a written list of your symptoms, if any, as well as information about your medical history and possible risk factors. Consider bringing a buddy along to help you give information and ask questions in case you get flustered in the presence of a white coat! The physician will do a physical exam, including certain tests:
• Blood tests to look for hepatitis C antibodies that your body may have made in an attempt to fight HCV, as well as genetic material from the virus that would be a clue to the fact that you harbor HCV.
• Liver function studies in order to find out how well your liver is functioning. You may need periodic follow-up studies to assess whether more damage is being done.
• An ultrasound of the liver, which is another way of assessing liver damage.
• A liver biopsy, which is the excision of small sample of the organ to be sent to a laboratory for testing.
Hepatitis C Information for the Public – CDC
Diseases and Conditions, Hepatitis C, MayoClinic.org
New York Presbyterian, Weill Cornell Medical Center, Viral Hepatitis