By: Teri Gottlieb
What are the risk factors for Hepatitis C? Could you have been exposed to this deadly virus and not know it? The answer is YES!
Currently, injection drug users (IDUs), who share syringes, water, cookers or filters, are at the highest risk of exposure to the Hep C virus. The key word here is currently. Prior to the mid 1990s there were plenty of ways to get infected.
To cause a new infection, HCV must pass from the blood of an infected person into the blood of an uninfected (susceptible) person. In other words, HCV is most easily spread through direct blood-to-blood contact, such as:
Unlike human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, it is generally believed that HCV cannot be transmitted through semen or other genital fluids, unless blood is present. Thus, the risk of becoming infected with HCV through unprotected sexual intercourse is low—but it is still possible. Avoid having sex during menstrual cycles. For the most part, this risk is the highest among gay men who are having rough sex. For a monogamous heterosexual couple, this risk is almost nonexistent.
Women who are infected with HCV have a less than 10 percent chance of passing the virus along to their babies during pregnancy or delivery, although the risk increases if the woman’s HCV viral load (the amount of HCV in a measurement of blood) is high. HCV cannot be transmitted through breast feeding or breast milk.
There is a risk of exposure from tattoos, piercings and manicures and pedicures. PLEASE make sure the business you are frequenting is using sterile equipment. This is often not thought of in nail salons but sadly, it is a source of exposure.
You may be at risk for hepatitis C and should contact your health care provider for a blood test if you:
What happens when someone is infected? Being infected with HCV does not necessarily mean that liver disease will occur. What’s more, it can take several years, (decades, in most cases) for HCV to cause life-threatening liver disease. Soon after HCV enters the body, it infects cells in the liver called hepatocytes. Only a small number of people (about 25 percent) actually experience symptoms of infection, such as fatigue, decreased appetite, dry and itchy skin, clay colored stools, nausea or jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). However, almost all people infected with HCV will, at some point, experience an increase in their liver enzymes—such as serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT)—which can be detected by a simple blood test. An increase in ALT means that some liver cells are becoming damaged by the HCV infection.
About 15 to 20 percent of people infected with HCV are able to clear the virus from their bodies on their own, usually within six months after becoming infected (more common among infected infants and young women). However, the majority of people infected with HCV have “chronic” Hepatitis C—an infection that will stay with them for life. In other words, if 100 people are infected with HCV tomorrow, 15 to 20 of them will clear the virus from their bodies within six months, whereas 80 to 85 of them will remain infected with the virus. Of the 80 to 85 people with chronic Hepatitis C, about 60 of them will remain healthy—their liver enzymes will stay normal, even though HCV can be detected in their livers and in their blood, and they will not go on to develop liver disease or experience symptoms of the infection. The remaining 15 to 20 people with chronic Hepatitis C will go on to experience some signs and symptoms of liver disease, such as fatigue, nausea, muscle aches and abdominal pain. They may also develop cirrhosis of the liver and are much more susceptible to liver cancer.