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The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is responsible for causing the acute or chronic liver disease called hepatitis C, the transmission of which takes place only through blood. Even though hospitals and nursing homes screen the blood and check for HCV before any transfusion, ruling out hepatitis C transmission by this means, it is estimated that about three percent of the world's population is chronically infected with HCV currently. This includes four million people in the United States, making it one of the greatest public health threats of the century.

Stages

About 80% of the people who have hepatitis C exhibit no symptoms; but they can infect others. In some cases, until liver failure or until the symptoms of liver cirrhosis are noticed, the disease is not detected.

Early Stage: Infected persons may notice one or some of the following symptoms. It is also possible that no symptoms are noticed.
  • Flu like mild fever, fatigue
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite
  • Swollen, inflamed liver
  • Vague abdominal pain
  • Tenderness in the area of liver
  • Diarrhea
  • Dark urine
  • Jaundice (noted in some cases)
  • Light colored stools
  • Weight loss
  • Itchy skin
About 20% of infected persons experience disorders of the thyroid, intestine, eyes, joints, blood, spleen, kidneys, and skin. It is observed that about 85% of the infected individuals, are not able to get rid of the virus, as a result of which, they end up having a long-term liver infection, called chronic hepatitis C. As the early stage is difficult to detect, the next stage, that gets detected a little more often, is chronic hepatitis C. Symptoms experienced during the initial stage of the disease are often misinterpreted or overlooked.

Chronic Stage: Chronic hepatitis C is confirmed by elevated liver enzymes and a positive antibody test. Fatigue is the most common symptom which can take years to actually alarm an individual that something may be wrong. Other symptoms noted are as follows.
  • The scarring within the liver is worsened
  • Blood can not flow freely through the liver
  • Dysfunction of liver
  • Consequent liver cirrhosis
  • Shrunken and hardened liver
  • Nausea, loss of appetite
  • Weakness and weight loss
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Spider angiomas, spider-like blood vessels developed on the skin
Final Stage: During the final stage of hepatitis C, liver continues to get further damaged and scarred, accompanied by the following symptoms.
  • One or more of its functions are not at all performed by the damaged liver, leading to diagnosis of liver failure. Liver may stop removing harmful toxins or drugs from the blood or may stop making enough of the proteins required by the body to function properly.
  • Accumulation of toxins in the bloodstream leads to damaged brain and nervous system, slow mental function, confusion.
  • Bleeding in the intestine, esophagus, stomach, etc.
  • Itchy skin
  • Change in personality
  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Development of varices
  • Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance
  • High blood pressure within the liver
  • Gallstones
  • Sensitivity to medications
  • Abdominal swelling due to fluid accumulation (ascites)
Causes
  • Use of syringes for intake of intravenous drugs by multiple people and high risk sexual activity increase one's chances of contracting the infection.
  • Tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture and ear-piercing can also contribute to the spread of HCV.
  • The chances of contracting hepatitis C infection are higher in sexually promiscuous individuals and not in monogamous couples.
  • Manicures, sharing of toothbrushes and blade razors can lead to hepatitis C infection.
  • Sometimes, a person may not progress to chronic liver disease but if he is infected by the virus, he carries the virus for life. Thus, he is able to transmit the virus to others throughout his life. Individuals can carry HCV for decades and can become the cause of spread of the disease.
Facts

According to the available statistics, more than 80 percent of HCV infections become chronic. In the U.S., every year, about 8,000 to 10,000 people die due to this disease. It is really shocking that the major cause of liver transplant in the U.S. is liver failure due to hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer, for which, most often, liver transplantation is recommended. Different hepatitis C stages are generally not recognized; because the disease may take as long as 20 years to show severe symptoms. Therefore, it is known as the 'Silent Epidemic'. It is usually not passed on to child from mother during birth, unlike hepatitis B. But 5% of infants born to infected women are found to be infected. If the infection is severe, the risk of baby being born with infection increases. Breastfeeding is not linked with the transmission of HCV. Chronic hepatitis C is diagnosed with the help of blood test, liver biopsy and other molecular tests that help detect the virus. The chances of spread of HCV through hugging, kissing, touching, coughing, etc. are very low.

Every case of hepatitis C is different. Some people have very severe symptoms, some have no symptoms at all or very few symptoms. Hepatitis C symptoms and treatment are said to be heavily interrelated and interdependent. It is estimated that the death rate from hepatitis C will soon be more than the death rate due to HIV/AIDS. It can only get worse, if prompt measures are not taken to treat the infected people, and the spread of HCV is not stopped.

Disclaimer: This Buzzle article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.