What is your liver and why do you need it?
The liver does a lot of things for you. It helps digest food and also stores vitamins and minerals. But most importantly, the liver acts as a filter for chemicals and other substances that enter the body, including toxins in the air that we breathe and what we eat and drink. It is also important in the manufacture of your blood.
What can happen to people with Hepatitis C?
The illness begins almost like “flu” with fatigue, a fever, body aches and pains, and perhaps nausea and vomiting. The urine may become dark brown. In severe infections, the skin or the eyes may turn yellow (jaundice).
Although people who get Hepatitis C may not have symptoms, or feel ill for only a short time, they may carry the Hepatitis C virus in their bloodstream and be contagious for years. In the majority of cases, Hepatitis C progresses to a “chronic” stage, which lasts for a long time and continues to cause symptoms for years, if not a person’s whole life. The worst effect of this is cirrhosis, which results in severe damage to the liver. A small number of people may get cancer.
How can I find out if you have Hepatitis C?
If you think you may be at risk for Hepatitis C, you may want to take the simple blood test for this disease. For more information, contact a public health clinic, your doctor or the Lethbridge HIV Connection.
Am I at risk for Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is spread through contact with the blood of infected people. This can happen by:
- Sharing needles, straws and other drug-related equipment.
- Getting a tattoo or having body piercing or acupuncture where the operator uses the unclean equipment.
- Being pricked by a needle that has infected blood on it (hospital workers can get Hepatitis C this way).
- Being born to a mother who has Hepatitis C.
It is also possible that sharing household articles such as a razor or toothbrush with an infected person can spread Hepatitis C.
People who had a blood transfusion before 1992 are also at risk of developing the disease.
Hepatitis C is NOT spread by casual contact such as hugging, kissing, or shaking hands or by being around someone who is sneezing or coughing. The virus is also NOT found in food or water.
What if I have Hepatitis C?
There are drugs called Interferon and Ribavirin that can be used to treat Hepatitis C. However, you need to discuss with your physician the side effects associated with these drugs. There is NO vaccine against the disease.
If you have Hepatitis C, you may infect others. To keep from spreading the disease:
- Don’t share toothbrushes, razors or any other ordinary item that could be contaminated with your blood.
- Cover open sores or breaks in your skin.
- Follow safer sex practices: inform your sex partner about your illness, and use latex condoms.
How did I get Hepatitis C?
Those most at risk include people who received blood transfusions prior to the onset of screening for the virus in 1990, people exposed to contaminated needles (through tattooing, acupuncture, IV drug use, some mass immunization programs), and healthcare workers. But the source of infection is simply unknown for 10 to 15 percent of people infected with Hepatitis C. It is estimated that 0.8% of the Canadian population carry the Hepatitis C virus.
How can I avoid getting Hepatitis C?
The best way to keep safe from Hepatitis C is to avoid the risk:
- Don’t share drug needles or drug-related equipment, EVER.
- Wear gloves if you are likely to be in contact with a person’s blood.
- If you want a tattoo or body piercing or are having acupuncture, make sure a trained reliable person does it with clean, sterile equipment. Needles should be used only once and only on one person.
- If you have sex with more than one partner, use a condom.
How sick will I get?
Hepatitis C is still a mystery virus. Many of those infected do not get sick or feel ill only for a brief time, but the majority of people will develop chronic Hepatitis C which can lead to liver disease, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.
An estimated 20% of people with chronic Hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis, the seventh-leading cause of death in Canada.
Symptoms of chronic Hepatitis C may not appear for a long time after the initial infection. Symptoms may include fatigue, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), nausea, muscle and joint pain, skin irritations and hair loss. In more serious cases, loss of liver function leads to a build-up of toxins in the blood. Early signs of toxin build-up include unresponsiveness, forgetfulness, and trouble concentrating or sleeping: weight loss and water retention may occur.
What can I do?
The risk of cirrhosis increases with alcohol use; consumption should be reduced. Exposure to air and food toxin (i.e., paint fumes, nicotine, chemical preservatives) should be avoided to reduce the amount of work the liver has to do. Many people have been helped by various alternative therapies such as homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal remedy and massage therapy. Consult your doctor. Those willing to “fight back” have a better chance of suppressing the virus – you spirit and attitude have a profound bearing on your health and well-being.
Is my family at risk?
Hepatitis C is spread through contact with blood. The risk of household transmission is unknown, but probably very low. However, standard measures for avoiding exposure to other people’s blood should be followed. For example, avoid sharing razors, toothbrushes, and other personal hygiene items. A small but real possibility exists for Hepatitis C to be transmitted sexually. The risk of spreading the Hepatitis C virus from mother to child is estimated at between 5 and 10 percent. It is thought that this may occur during pregnancy.
Is there hope?
YES! New drug treatments are being developed and improved all the time. As well, research is being done to find a vaccine and ultimately a cure for Hepatitis C.
Is there a cure for Hepatitis C?
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C at the present time. Once in the body, HCV can literally change its coat (or outer capsule) in a process called mutation. It is this outer coating that helps the body or vaccine identify a virus and attack it. Thus, developing a vaccine for hepatitis C has become a moving target. You would need a different vaccine for each mutation of the virus. Researchers are currently tackling this challenge but a vaccine is not expected in the near future.
The standard treatment currently approved for Hepatitis C is a combination of Interferon and Ribavirin. Interferon is an artificial version of a natural product of the body that interferes with virus reproduction. It is injected three times weekly, Ribavirin is a pill taken daily. This combination treatment suppresses the virus; it does not eliminate it. The response rate is promising.
Approximately 40% of people receiving this treatment are able to completely eliminate the Hepatitis C virus from their bodies. Success ranges from 20-80% and depends on many factors: the amount of scarring in the liver, the amount of virus in the body and the specific genotype of hepatitis C. Most people with hepatitis C can live a healthy life for many years. Only about 20% of hepatitis C patients develop cirrhosis or liver cancer. The key to successful treatment and management of the disease is early diagnosis and treatment.
Side effects can include flu-like symptoms, fever, fatigue, headaches, weight loss, nausea, anemia, depression and muscle/bone pain. There are ways to help the liver help itself.
Where can I get help?
The Hepatitis C Society of Canada (HeCSC) is a national voluntary health organization whose mission is: To fight Hepatitis C through prevention, early diagnosis, support, appropriate treatment, and comfort.
The Hepatitis C Society of Canada
Many who are infected with Hepatitis C experience isolation, uncertainty and fear about the future. HeCSC members have found that the support and sharing of their experiences with others with Hepatitis C helps to overcome the sense of isolation. There are more than 50 chapters and telephone support centers nation-wide, with more being added all the time.
HeCSC has educational material, which is available to the general public, the medical community, policymakers and its own membership. Those who have Hepatitis C need as much information as possible about the disease if they are to manage their disease effectively. Every Canadian must know the scope of the problem and preventative measures if the spread of Hepatitis C is to be stopped.
HeCSC is in dialogue with public health officials and government representatives about Hepatitis issues, including compensation, equality of access to disability pension plans, fair treatment from employers, increased research and awareness, and the availability of treatment.
Injecting Drug Use and Having Hepatitis C
(Click below for more information)
What are the effects of drugs on my liver?
Two things can be really hard on your liver – alcohol and Tylenol TM. Alcohol wears down your liver over time. If you have Hepatitis C, the less you drink alcohol, the better.
Tylenol can damage your liver more if:
- You take a big dose (more than 6 pills).
- You take it over and over every day.
- You take it with other drugs that are hard on your liver.
Ask your nurse or doctor about taking TylenolTM or T3’s or T4’s. Another name for TylenolTM is acetaminophen. Some other drugs can be hard on your liver if you take too much or mix them together. Drugs like cocaine, crystal meth, T’s and R’s, and DarvonTM may cause a problem.
Certain drugs do not hurt the liver (but can cause problems in other parts of your body). Some of these are:
How does having Hepatitis C change my life?
Here are some quotes from people who have made changes to their life:
- “I had to look at how much I was using. I decided to switch from coke to morphine because I could take better care of myself.”
- “I quit drinking. It’s hard but I need to take better care of my liver.”
- “I only drink beer now when I go on a drunk, no more hard stuff or other crap like mouthwash and aftershave. Sometimes I smoke pot instead.”
- “I make sure I filter really well when I’m using. I figure I should do whatever I can to stay healthier.”
- “I try to eat as healthy as I can, and listen to when my body tells me I need to eat and sleep.”
I don’t want my buddies to get it, how do I keep them safe?
Here are some quotes from people who have learned to keep their friends safe:
- “I make sure I keep my rigs separate and marked when we’re using together.”
- “I keep telling people not to lend or share anything – rigs, water, spoons, filters, keep your own stuff.”
- “I was a tattooer when I was in the pen. I always told people to keep their own needle and ink and bring it back to get work done.”
- “I told my old man I want to use rubbers cause even if they say you usually don’t get it that way, I don’t want to get him sick, especially during my period.”
- “I know that screwing around a lot increases your chances of getting it. I use lots of lube to keep things slippery. Then it’s safer.”
What about cirrhosis? I thought only drinkers got that?
Here are some quotes from people with Hepatitis C:
- “I heard that when you’ve had Hepatitis C for a long time, the body tries to fight it, and that scars the liver. That’s all that cirrhosis means.”
- “I overdosed the other day, and when I came to, the doc told me that the scarring of my liver (cirrhosis) made me overdose on less drug because my body couldn’t clean it out.”
- “I know I need to take a break and slow down when I get really tired, and my eyes look a little yellow, my pee gets dark yellow, sometimes I even get pain on my right side. I think those are the times when my liver is sick so I need to slow down to give it a break so my liver lasts longer.”
- “I get checked by the doctor if I don’t feel right.”
How does Hepatitis C differ from Hepatitis A or B?
Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are all forms of viral hepatitis—an inflammation of the liver caused by a virus. However, there are a number of characteristics that differentiate these diseases.
Hepatitis A is spread by a fecal-oral route or by eating and drinking contaminated food or water. In younger patients, the infection often goes unnoticed. Most patients recover fully after a short illness. As a result of their infection, they develop lifelong immunity.
Hepatitis B is transmitted through infected blood and body fluids. It can be passed, for example, from mother to child during delivery. It can also be transmitted sexually and is, therefore, a sexually transmitted disease. Hepatitis B is often spread through injection drug use. The majority of adults infected with the hepatitis B virus recover completely, and as a result of their infection, develop lifelong immunity to the virus. However, approximately 10% of adults and 90% of infants who become infected with hepatitis B cannot get rid of the virus and are considered to have chronic hepatitis B. These people become long-term carriers, and although they may be symptom free for many years, they may develop cirrhosis or liver cancer later in life.