Hepatitis C is an infectious disease associated with inflammation of the liver. The disease is caused by Hepatitis C virus. Infection with this virus that lasts more then 6 months is termed as chronic hepatitis C.
Chronic Hepatitis C Overview
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is one of the major causes of chronic liver disease and chronic viral hepatitis in Americans. Around 4.1 million of the U.S. population is infected with hepatitis C virus. Also, between 10,000 and 12,000 people in the Unites States die each year due to this virus.
Hepatitis C most often progresses into chronic liver disease, the condition with progressive deterioration of the liver. In fact, around 75% of people with acute hepatitis C eventually develop chronic infection.
The course and effect of chronic hepatitis C tremendously vary from person to person. The disease may be completely asymptomatic and the patient may have normal levels of serum enzymes. Only liver biopsy can reveal damage to the liver to mild degree. In such patients, overall prognosis is generally good.
On the other hand, chronic hepatitis C may cause symptoms, high levels of the virus in serum and increased serum enzymes. The disease finally leads to cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease. Many patients, however, have vague symptoms, mild to moderate increase in liver enzymes and unclear prognosis.
Chronic hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis. In fact, 20% of patients with chronic hepatitis C develop cirrhosis after 10 to 20 years of being infected. Liver failure may also result from chronic hepatitis C. In the United States liver transplantation is most commonly performed due to liver failure. Hepatitis C is one of the major causes of primary liver cancer as well. Male gender, alcohol abuse, cirrhosis, age over 40 years and chronic hepatitis C infection represent risk factors for HCV-related liver cancer.
Transmission of Hepatitis C Virus
HCV can be spread by exposure to infected blood and blood products. Most often the infection is transmitted by sharing contaminated needles among intravenous drug users. Before 1992, the infection was often acquired from blood transfusions. However, this route of spreading is nowadays almost eliminated since all blood products are screened for HCV antibody.
Hepatitis C virus can be transmitted from an infected mother to the unborn child. Sometimes, the infection can be passed during unprotected sexual intercourse. Other risk factors for acquiring hepatitis C are accidental needle-sticks, hemodialysis for kidney failure and sharing equipment for intranasal cocaine use with an infected person.