Hepatitis C is an inflammation of the liver caused by, you guessed it, the hepatitis C virus. As a disease, it can be a scary and often unknown entity. Often known as the silent killer since many infected are asymptomatic, hepatitis C, or HCV, is more common than many people know. But despite its scary nature, treatment is highly effective, and with widespread testing, we can help end hepatitis C as a silent killer.
So, What Exactly is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C (HCV) was discovered in 1989, making it a relatively young virus considering that an estimated 58 million people worldwide are infected, with about 1.5 million new infections per year as of the most recent WHO data in July 2021. HCV occurs across all regions of the world. However, the highest disease burden is in the Eastern Mediterranean and European regions, with 12 million people infected in each of these regions.
Is Hepatitis C Sexually Transmitted?
While hepatitis C can be sexually transmitted, it is most often transmitted through contact with broken skin with infectious blood and is commonly contracted through:
- The reuse or inadequate sterilization of medical equipment, especially syringes and needles, in healthcare settings
- The transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products
- Injecting drug use through the sharing of injection equipment
How Long Can You Have Hepatitis C Without Knowing?
So, why is hepatitis C so common and unique at the same time? Known as a silent killer, many people with HCV are asymptomatic, sometimes even for years. In fact, people with acute infections are often asymptomatic. As such, someone may not know they are infected, so the virus can remain hidden for years.
What are Hepatitis C Symptoms?
When a person is symptomatic, they often display:
- Decreased appetite
- Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain
- Dark urine and pale feces
- Joint pain
- Jaundice (yellow skin tone and whites of the eyes)
Hepatitis C Stages
How the disease progresses varies from person to person. Some people will have minimal liver damage with no scarring, while others progress to more severe illnesses such as cirrhosis (extensive scarring of the liver) within less than ten years.
The immediate period following infection is called the acute phase. It lasts approximately six months. Many people experience no symptoms during this stage or develop non-specific symptoms such as fatigue and loss of appetite. The chronic stage happens if someone cannot beat hepatitis C naturally in the acute phase.
What is the Hepatitis C Viral Load?
The viral load of hepatitis C refers to the amount of virus present in the bloodstream. Quantitative HCV RNA tests measure the amount of HCV in the blood. Many people refer to the quantitative measurement as the hepatitis C “viral load.”
How Long Can You Live with Hepatitis C Without Treatment?
During the acute phase, which can last six months, around 30% (ranging from 15 – 45%) spontaneously clear the virus without any treatment, whereas the remaining 70% develop chronic HCV. However, the majority (70%) will go onto the chronic stage and require treatment, and nearly 25 to 30% of people who reach the chronic phase will get cirrhosis.
So, What Can We Do About This Silent Killer?
The best way to start is by testing – the only way to know for sure if you have hepatitis C. And while there is no vaccine for hepatitis C like there is for hepatitis A and B, the good news is that there is a cure, and the HCV cure rate is relatively high at 95%.
Hepatitis C Antibody Testing
Testing is essential in the fight against HCV, as if left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to serious lifelong diseases such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. The body tries to fight HCV by making an anti-HCV antibody, which will be found in your blood if exposed or infected with HCV. If a person’s test comes back positive, a doctor will perform a viral load test to measure ribonucleic (RNA) in the blood.
Hepatitis C is easier to treat if caught earlier on. To get tested, please visit your local clinic or learn more about the INSTI rapid hepatitis C test kits, which is the world’s fastest HCV antibody test.