Hepatitis C is a virus that targets the liver, causing inflammation and irritation and eventually permanent liver damage. Hepatitis C often causes few or no symptoms until liver damage has occurred. The disease is passed through blood, including using needles that have been infected.
In those cases when hepatitis C does cause symptoms, they can include:
The first step in diagnosis is to perform a physical exam and, usually, blood tests. Depending on the results, a liver biopsy may also be performed. During a biopsy, a small amount of liver tissue is extracted using a long needle inserted through your abdomen. A local anesthetic can be used to minimize discomfort. Hepatitis C screening is also important for diagnosing the disease early, before extensive liver damage has occurred. Screening uses a blood test, and it’s primarily used in people at risk for the disease, including needle users, dialysis patients, people who have undergone transplants or transfusions, and those with HIV infection.
Hepatitis C must be treated with antiviral medications, and often, these medications must be used for a long period of time – often more than 12 months. More recently, medications have been introduced that may enable patients to take shorter courses of drugs, reducing the risks of side effects like depression, low blood cell count and flu-like symptoms that can occur with long-term medication use.