Hepatitis C (also known as HCV or hep C) is a liver-damaging virus that is spread through exposure to contaminated blood and body fluids. The virus has infected approximately four million Americans. Out of this number, over 2.5 million suffer from chronic HCV infection.New cases of hep C are declining as awareness of the disease alters public perceptions and health care precautions. Approximately 250,000 cases of HCV were reported yearly through the 1980s. By 2001, the number of new infections had dropped to 25,000.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a single-strand RNA virus that causes inflammation of the liver. It is transmitted through contact with blood and body fluids. The virus has no vaccine, and is unrelated to other forms of hepatitis virus.
Acute and Chronic HCV
Hep C can manifest as both acute and chronic infections. Incubation of the virus takes between six to twelve weeks, usually followed by four weeks of acute infection. Chronic infections are common and may last for years. Over the course of twenty to thirty years, chronic hep C can cause widespread liver damage. Twenty percent of chronic cases results in cirrhosis of the liver, and one to five percent of all cases develops liver cancer.
Hepatitis C Transmission
Drug Use. Intravenous drug use is the most common method of hepatitis C transmission. Drug users who share needles are significantly more likely to be exposed to hep C contaminated blood than other groups. IV drug use is not, however, the only possible way to become infected.
Blood Transfusion and Organ Transplants. Prior to 1992, people who underwent blood transfusion or organ transplants were at high risk of contracting HCV. Since then, the screening criteria for both organ transplant and blood donors has become much more stringent, and now an estimated only one in a million cases of hep C can be traced to a contaminated blood transfusion. Hemodialysis patients are also at higher than normal risk.
Sexual Contact. Transmission of HCV through sexual contact is possible, but rare. Having multiple partners increases the risk somewhat. Use of condoms is recommended, not just for the slight chance of contracting hepatitis C, but also for more easily transmissible STDs.
Childbirth and Hepatitis C. Although unlikely, hep C can be passed from an infected mother to her child during childbirth. About six percent of all cases of hepatitis C occur in this way. No evidence indicates that the disease can be passed to a child through breast milk, although mothers should not breastfeed if their nipples are cracked or bleeding.
Tattooing and Body Piercing
Tattooing and body piercing can increase your risk of catching hep C. In large part, this depends on the personal hygiene and diligence of the tattoo or piercing artist. Improperly cleaned tools, or reusing needles, can transmit contaminated blood, as can an artist who fails to use gloves or wash his hands. If you’re considering tattooing or body piercing, don’t be afraid to question the hygiene of the parlor, and avoid any business that doesn’t take the risk of disease transmission seriously.
Other Risk Factors
Exposure to contaminated blood
Sharing potentially contaminated razors, toothbrushes and other personal items.
Myths of Hepatitis C Transmission. Like many common diseases, HCV is often misunderstood, and a number of myths have developed about how the disease is spread. Contrary to what you may have heard, hep C is not transmitted by:
Contaminated food or water
Sharing dishes, glasses or eating utensils