Hepatitis C FAQs
What is the Hepatitis C virus?
Hepatitis C (sometimes called Hep C or HCV, formerly as Non A Non B Hepatitis) is a virus that affects the liver. Infection can occur by coming into contact with the blood of an infected person (there are other ways of becoming infected with HCV). It is related to Hepatitis A and B virus, which were both identified earlier than HCV.
Sadly, if it is not treated, HCV can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver. Many of our clients have unfortunately suffered with HCV for many years before being diagnosed.
Positive progress has been made recently in developing new treatments, and the majority of those who contract the virus should have a normal life expectancy. Some treatments have significant side effects however, and not all patients respond to modern therapy.
What are the early symptoms of Hepatitis C?
A particular difficulty with HCV is that it often does not carry any clearly identifiable symptoms until the liver has become severely damaged. This means that many people are unaware they have been infected with the virus for many years, which is a particular risk for those that caught the virus from an infected blood transfusion which they supposed was safe. Where symptoms are felt, the cause of them is often difficult to diagnose and they may be mistaken for other less serious illnesses.
These symptoms can include:
- flu-like symptoms, including aching muscles a high temperature
- feeling tired all the time
- loss of appetite
- tummy (abdominal) pain
What are the long-term complications of Hepatitis C?
Without effective treatment, HCV will over time cause scarring of the liver (this is called cirrhosis). In the most severe cases, where the virus has gone untreated over many years, liver cirrhosis can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. A liver transplant can potentially be attempted in these circumstances, but that does not treat the underlying HCV.
In addition, along with the early symptoms listed above, individuals with HCV may also develop other symptoms including mood swings, depression or anxiety, and problems with short-term memory, concentration and completing complex mental tasks (some people who are affected by these symptoms describe them as “brain fog”).
The risks of these serious long-term complications developing can be significantly reduced with early diagnosis and treatment of the HCV.
How can you get Hepatitis C?
HCV is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact. It is for this reason infection is likely to have occurred if you received an infected blood transfusion, including any blood product such as coagulation factor concentrates. However, this is not the only way that you can come into contact with infected blood, and other ways in which infection can be spread include:
- Sharing unsterilised needles. This is a particular risk for anyone who has injected recreational drugs
- Sharing razors or tooth brushes
- Through unprotected sex, although this is thought to be very rare
It is also possible to contract HCV from other bodily fluids, but blood carries the highest levels of the virus. It is important to stress that you cannot catch HCV from:
- social contact, such as hugging
- sharing kitchen utensils
- toilet seats
How is Hepatitis C diagnosed?
As noted above, the symptoms associated with HCV can often be mistaken for another type of illness. The only way to know for certain whether you have been infected with Hepatitis C is to have an accredited diagnostic blood test.
We urge anyone who is concerned about symptoms they have been experiencing, or that they might have been provided with an infected blood transfusion to speak to their GP and ask to Get Tested. With modern treatments, the earlier the diagnosis, the more positive the outlook is likely to be. If you are infected, getting tested will also help prevent you passing the virus on to anyone else.
How do I get tested?
HCV is diagnosed using a blood test. Your GP surgery will be able to arrange this test for you.
Alternatively, Hepatitis C blood tests are offered by sexual health clinics, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics, any consultant hospital physician and drug treatment services.
The results are usually available within 2 weeks.
The Hepatitis C Trust has more information about testing.
Is there a vaccine?
There is currently no vaccine for Hepatitis C.
What are the treatment options?
Treatment for HCV now usually involves taking medicines that are known as Direct Acting Antivirals(DAA). If infection has been recent, it may not be necessary to start the medication right away, as in some cases an individual can naturally clear the virus from their body without treatment.
There are six variations of the HCV, and the treatment provided will be the most appropriate type for the variation (known as a certain genotype) that the individual patient has been infected with. Blood tests are carried out whilst the medication is being taken which are designed to check whether the medication being taken is working. If the amount of the HCV is not reducing effectively, a different type of medication may be tried instead.
The doctors may also test the condition of the patient’s liver to check whether any scarring has occurred. This can be done with blood tests or by a scan known as a fibroscan.
Once the course of medication has been completed further blood tests will be carried out to check whether the virus is being cleared. If no signs of the HCV are found, this means that the treatment has been successful.
Nine out of ten people with Hepatitis C are cured by modern DAAs. If the treatment is not successful, it can be repeated or extended, or a different type of medicine can be tried.
The NHS website has more information about treatments.
Does the treatment carry side effects?
Compared to earlier forms of treatment, the current DAA treatments are very effective and most people find them easy to take. Unfortunately, they still carry the risk of side effects and some patients find these particularly unpleasant. For those that suffer side effects they can include:
- skin irritation
- problems sleeping (insomnia)
- tiredness caused by anaemia
- hair loss
- aggressive behaviour
Are there any other ways to limit the damage caused by Hepatitis C?
There are a number of lifestyle measures that can help reduce the effects of having Hepatitis C including:
- Stop smoking
- Healthy eating and regular exercise
- Cutting out alcohol or limiting the amount that you drink can be particularly important as it can increase the damage caused to the liver.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS DOCUMENT IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY, AND SHOULD NOT BE TREATED AS MEDICAL ADVICE.
For more information, please check the NHS website or speak to your GP.