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Q: What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a highly infectious virus that’s spread through the blood and affects the liver. While some people will spontaneously clear the infection and may never experience symptoms, more than half of people who contract hepatitis C will go on to develop a chronic, long-term liver infection. This can lead to potentially life-threatening health problems, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Many people with a hepatitis C infection may not know they have it, because the virus often causes no symptoms in the early stages. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, nausea, joint pain, jaundice, dark urine, and clay-colored stool. Once symptoms do start to appear, it’s often a sign of advanced liver disease.

The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is with a blood test. The CDC recommends that all adults should be tested at least once, and that pregnant women should be tested during each pregnancy. Because the disease can be passed from mother to child, babies born to an infected mother should also be tested. Finally, it’s recommended that anyone who receives maintenance hemodialysis, and people who inject drugs and share needles or other drug preparation equipment be tested regularly.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. The best way to protect yourself is by avoiding injecting drugs and other activities that can potentially spread the disease.

Hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medications. With new treatments, many patients can now clear the virus within 12 weeks.

Michael J. Shea , MD

Critical Care Medicine

Maui Memorial Medical Center
221 Mahalani Street
Wailuku, HI 96793