Chronic hepatitis C is a viral infection that can cause serious, long-term damage to the liver as well as problems with other organs. It is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), a widespread pathogen that is transmitted through exposure with contaminated blood. HCV rarely causes symptoms in the acute phase of infection, which lasts about six months, and many people do not experience health problems until several months or years after they enter the chronic hepatitis C phase. Treatment with antiviral drugs is essential whenever symptoms of abdominal pain, fatigue, and nausea become chronic. If the virus is not discovered until extensive liver damage occurs, a transplant may be necessary to prevent life-threatening complications.
HCV is a very sturdy, prolific virus, and the human immune system is not well equipped to fight it off successfully. The virus usually lies dormant in the liver and bloodstream for many months, all the while replicating and invading multiple sites before causing problems. HCV is only transmitted through blood to blood contact. Drug users who share needles, people who get tattoos and piercings in unsanitary environments, and health-care professionals who treat sick people or handle blood products are at the highest risk of infection. Blood transfusions were major sources of infection several decades ago, but modern blood testing and delivery techniques have greatly improved the safety of transfusions.
When symptoms of chronic hepatitis C do appear, they typically include worsening pain in the upper abdomen, easy fatigue, and appetite changes. A person might have nausea and develop frequent fevers. Muscles and joints may start to ache constantly, and the abdomen can become very tender to the touch. It is important to visit a doctor whenever possible chronic hepatitis C symptoms arise and persist for several days.
A physician can check for HCV by screening blood samples. Blood tests also let doctors know how much of the virus is present and details about its specific genetic makeup. If symptoms are present, imaging tests such as ultrasounds and x-rays are usually performed to look for signs of liver damage. A liver tissue biopsy is occasionally needed to gauge the severity of inflammation and scarring.
Most people who are diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C are placed on a long course of antiviral drugs that may include ribavirin and interferon. Bed rest and proper hydration are essential when symptoms are especially severe. Long-term recovery is aided by maintaining a good diet, exercising regularly, avoiding alcohol, and attending regular medical checkups. Surgery to repair or replace the liver is only needed if the organ is seriously damaged.