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By: RSC Editorial Team

May 2, 2023

How Does Hepatitis C Affect the Body?

The hepatitis C virus (HCV) leads to inflammation of the liver, and the damage it causes is the number one reason for getting a liver transplant in the US. 

Most people with hep C aren’t aware they have it until symptoms of liver failure appear decades after their exposure to the virus. However, the virus can affect multiple areas of your body, potentially causing symptoms that alter your appearance or make you feel sick. 

This article will answer the question, “How does hepatitis C affect the body?” to help you learn more about how the virus affects your health, including possible symptoms of the infection. Hopefully, this comprehensive guide on hep C will help you recognize the signs as early as possible. 

Since hep C can be a life-threatening condition, you should get tested for the virus at least once in your lifetime, possibly on a regular basis if you’re at high risk of infection.

What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C, also known as “hep C,” is a bloodborne infection that gradually destroys your liver while causing little to no symptoms. The virus causes acute and chronic infections that often go under the radar because of the lack of symptoms. 

For approximately 30% of people with hep C, their bodies will naturally eradicate the virus. Most infected people develop a chronic hep C infection, leading to serious liver damage and, in some cases, liver failure. 

The term “hepatitis” means liver inflammation, and hep C is one of three common viruses that cause hepatitis. Hepatitis A and hepatitis B are similar viruses with a few notable differences:

  • Hepatitis A and B have vaccines, while hep C does not. 
  • Hep C and B spread through contact with infected blood, but hep A spreads via feces.
  • Hep A is an acute infection, while hep B and C typically become chronic infections.
  • Treatment for hep B and C is antiviral medication, but hep A usually doesn’t require treatment.

Advances in hep C treatments have made it possible to cure most infected people with antiviral medicine. A long-term infection leads to irreversible liver damage, so it’s crucial to test for hep C so you can detect the virus early and get treatment right away.  

Rapid STD Testing makes it easy to determine if you have hepatitis C. You can order your preferred test panel online and visit a professional rapid STD test center near you with your test code.

Acute vs. Chronic Hepatitis C

The first six months of an HCV infection constitute the acute phase, which is generally asymptomatic. While hep C clears up for some people, most end up with a chronic infection that lasts as long as they live without treatment. 

The reason it’s so important to test for hep C is the fact that a chronic HCV infection puts you on the slow path to liver failure. Hep C causes cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, which eventually gets in the way of essential functions of the organ. Chronic hepatitis C can also turn into liver cancer.

In the US, an estimated 3.9 million people have a long-term HCV infection. Even if you have chronic hep C, you could be unaware of the virus for years, even decades, because the symptoms aren’t obvious until much later.  

Impact of Hepatitis on the Body

During a chronic hep C infection, your liver experiences ongoing inflammation and reduced function, leading to dangerous conditions like cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were over 290,000 hepatitis C-related deaths in 2019.

As your liver loses normal functionality, you could develop complications throughout your body, including issues with digestion and blood flow.

Your liver handles vital functions in your body, such as:

  • Filtering out toxins 
  • Producing essential proteins
  • Supplying your digestive tract with bile
  • Converting excess sugar for energy storage
  • Processing red blood cells

When HCV disrupts these functions, the symptoms can drastically affect your overall health.

The bile produced by your liver travels to your small intestine, helping your digestive system break down fats and absorb the nutrients your body needs. Without proper nourishment, you could experience abrupt weight loss and deficient hair and nail growth.

When your liver isn’t doing its job, various parts of your body suffer from an accumulation of substances with nowhere to go. One such condition, known as ascites, causes a painful fluid buildup in your abdomen. The toxins your liver usually disposes of can flood your central nervous system, causing brain fog, forgetfulness, and depression.

Yellow skin and eyes are signs of jaundice, an ailment that results from excess bilirubin when your liver isn’t working correctly. Poor blood flow is another consequence of liver damage, increasing your risk of blood clots and internal bleeding.

With all that being said, it’s clear that chronic hep C puts you in a dire situation without treatment. Visit your closest Rapid STD Testing center for same-day STD testing so you can have peace of mind.

Hepatitis C Symptoms

The HCV incubation period lasts from two weeks to six months, and you likely won’t notice any signs during this phase. As the virus replicates and your immune system starts kicking in, you might start feeling side effects of the infection.

Only about 20% of people with acute hepatitis C experience symptoms, but those who do might have flu-like symptoms, including fever, body aches, and fatigue. You might also struggle with loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Visible signs of acute hep C include dark urine, light-colored feces, and jaundice.

Acute hep C symptoms can last anywhere from two weeks to three months. You should know that even if you don’t experience any side effects of the infection, you can still spread HCV to other people.

Once the HCV infection passes the six-month mark, it becomes a chronic condition. Most likely, you won’t experience extreme symptoms until years later, when the infection has significantly damaged your liver. 

Symptoms of hepatitis C that has advanced to late-stage liver disease include:

  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Swelling in arms and legs
  • Bloated abdomen
  • Joint pain
  • Confusion, slurred speech
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Skin rash and itchiness

The signs of chronic hepatitis C take so long to appear that many infected people never find out they have the virus until it has caused considerable liver deterioration. In some cases, people with hep C find out about their infection when they go through screening for blood donation or get abnormal blood test results during a regular check-up.

How Hepatitis C Spreads

HCV spreads through contact with an infected person’s blood, even if it’s only a small amount on a shared razor or toothbrush. The virus infiltrates your body through the bloodstream and begins replicating, eventually triggering your immune system to produce antibodies and fight back.

Typically, hepatitis C spreads from person to person in the following ways:

  • Sharing needles, syringes, etc., for drug injection
  • Exposure to blood in healthcare settings
  • Getting a tattoo or body piercing with unsanitized equipment
  • Transmission from infected mother to baby during birth
  • Sex that involves contact with blood

Before healthcare providers started screening blood and organ donations for hepatitis C in 1992, getting blood transfusions or organ transplants were common ways to contract HCV. For that reason, anyone who got one or both of those procedures before 1992 should consider testing for hepatitis C.

Since the virus spreads through blood, you don’t have to worry about casual contact with infected people, including hugging, holding hands, or kissing. You won’t catch HCV from sharing food or drink with someone who has an infection, and mothers can’t pass it to their babies through breastfeeding.

Another important note about the transmission of hepatitis C is that, while you can get it from having sex, it’s unlikely. Men who have sex with men or individuals who have rough sex are at higher risk of acquiring hep C from sexual activity.

Who’s at Higher Risk for Hepatitis C?

As a bloodborne virus, hep C is more likely to infect people who have had contact with or regular exposure to blood. 

You might be at a higher risk for hepatitis C if you:

  • Have injected drugs intravenously
  • Are a healthcare worker
  • Obtained a piercing or tattoo from an unregulated source
  • Were born while your mother had hepatitis C
  • Received an organ transplant or blood transfusion prior to 1992
  • Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987

Even if you’ve had hep C once and got antiviral treatment to cure it, you can catch the virus again. The risk of hepatitis C recurrence is higher if you fit into one of the categories above. In that case, you should get regular screenings for hep C, ensuring chronic infections won’t go unnoticed.

Testing for Hepatitis C

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends hepatitis C screening for all adults over 18 and pregnant women. If you have any of the risk factors we mentioned in the previous section, the CDC suggests a one-time screening or routine testing, depending on your exposure.

Since hepatitis C rarely causes symptoms, you could go unaware of your infection for decades. If you’re an adult who has never tested for hep C, you could save yourself from serious health issues in the future by checking if you have the virus. 

If your liver damage progresses to the point of organ failure, the only solution is to join the waitlist for liver transplants. However, if you discover the infection early on, you can put a stop to the virus by getting treatment. 

You can detect HCV through blood tests, including the HCV antibody test and the HCV RNA test (also known as a PCR test). Hepatitis C is detectable in your blood two to six months after exposure to the virus. 

The hepatitis C antibody test will reveal if you’ve ever had an HCV infection by detecting the antibodies your body creates in response to the virus. The results of an HCV antibody test can be one of the following:

  • Negative (non-reactive) result: you don’t have hepatitis C.
  • Positive (reactive) result: you have had hepatitis C at some point in your life.

If you get a positive on your antibody test, you should follow it up with a PCR test. The results of this blood test let you know if the virus is still active in your body, so a positive result means you should seek treatment from your doctor. With the latest antiviral medications, you could be free of hep C in eight to 12 weeks.

Depending on the length of your infection, you could have significant liver damage. Your healthcare provider can check the condition of your liver with imaging tests that use ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a liver biopsy, or blood tests.

Don’t Let Hep C Sneak Up on You – Order Your Rapid STD Test Today

So, how does hepatitis C affect the body? In short, HCV is an insidious virus that slowly sabotages your liver until it can’t operate normally, disrupting critical functions throughout your body, from storing energy to regulating blood clotting. 

An acute infection might clear up on its own, but the vast majority of people with the virus will develop chronic hepatitis C. If you never experience symptoms, you might spend your life unaware that you have an infection that could become liver cancer or even liver failure. 

At Rapid STD Testing, we offer a comprehensive 10-panel STD test that includes an antibody test for hepatitis C. If you would rather just screen for hep C, you can also order individual STD tests on our website. 

Find a Rapid STD Testing lab near you and order your test today.

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By: RSC Editorial Team
May 2, 2023

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