By: Dr Shamim Siddiqui
Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect the liver. If left untreated, it can sometimes cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver over many years resulting in liver cancer.
Liver cancer remains the fastest increasing cause of cancer death in Australia, with 1 Australian dying of liver cancer who are diagnosed with the disease. Globally viral hepatitis is responsible for 80% of liver cancers often linked to untreated hepatitis B or C infection.
However, with modern treatments, it's usually possible to cure the infection, and most people with it will have a normal life expectancy.
Symptoms of hepatitis C
Hepatitis C often doesn't have any noticeable symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. This means many people have the infection without realising it.
When symptoms do occur, they can be mistaken for another condition. Symptoms can include:
The only way to know for certain if these symptoms are caused by hepatitis C is to get tested.
How do you get hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact. Some ways the infection can be spread include:
Most hepatitis C infections occur in people who inject drugs or have injected them in the past. It's estimated around half of those who inject drugs have the infection.
Many people have been exposed to the virus years ago and it may not be front of mind to consider hepatitis C as a factor in their healthcare. GPs play a vital role to ensure Australia meets the WHO (World Health Organisation) goal of eliminating viral hepatitis as a public threat by 2030.
Getting tested for hepatitis C
Seek the advice of your Doctor. If you have persistent symptoms of hepatitis C or there's a risk you're infected, even if you don't have any symptoms. A blood test can be carried out to see if you have the infection. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent or limit any damage to your liver, as well as help ensure the infection isn't passed on to other people.
Treatments for Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C can be treated with medicines that stop the virus from multiplying inside the body. These usually need to be taken for several weeks. More than 90% of people with hepatitis C may be cured.
However, it's important to be aware that you won't be immune to the infection and should take steps to reduce your risk of becoming infected again.
Complications of Hepatitis C
If the infection is left untreated for many years, some people with hepatitis C will develop scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Over time, this can cause the liver to stop working properly. In severe cases, life-threatening problems such as liver failure – where the liver loses most or all of its functions – or liver cancer can eventually develop. Treating hepatitis C as early as possible can help reduce the risk of these problems occurring.
Preventing Hepatitis C
There's no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are ways to reduce your risk of becoming infected.
The risk of getting hepatitis C through sex is very low. However, it may be higher if blood is present, such as menstrual blood.
We encourage patients to be tested for Hepatitis C and receive treatment if necessary.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Medical Centre, or any other provider within the clinic.