The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is one of the most important causes of chronic liver disease in the United States. It accounts for about 20 percent of acute viral hepatitis, 60 to 70 percent of chronic hepatitis, and 30 percent of cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease, and liver cancer. Almost 4 million Americans, or 1.8 percent of the U.S. population, have antibody to HCV (anti-HCV), indicating ongoing or previous infection with the virus. Hepatitis C causes an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 deaths annually in the United States.
A distinct and major characteristic of hepatitis C is its tendency to cause chronic liver disease. At least 75 percent of patients with acute hepatitis C ultimately develop chronic infection, and most of these patients have accompanying chronic liver disease.
Chronic hepatitis C varies greatly in its course and outcome. At one end of the spectrum are patients who have no signs or symptoms of liver disease and completely normal levels of serum liver enzymes. Liver biopsy usually shows some degree of chronic hepatitis, but the degree of injury is usually mild, and the overall prognosis may be good. At the other end of the spectrum are patients with severe hepatitis C who have symptoms, HCV RNA in serum, and elevated serum liver enzymes, and who ultimately develop cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease. In the middle of the spectrum are many patients who have few or no symptoms, mild to moderate elevations in liver enzymes, and an uncertain prognosis. Researchers estimate that at least 20 percent of patients with chronic hepatitis C develop cirrhosis, a process that takes 10 to 20 years. After 20 to 40 years, a smaller percentage of patients with chronic disease develop liver cancer.
HCV is spread primarily by contact with blood and blood products. Blood transfusions and the use of shared, unsterilized, or poorly sterilized needles and syringes have been the main causes of the spread of HCV in the United States. With the introduction in 1991 of routine blood screening for HCV antibody and improvements in the test in mid-1992, transfusion-related hepatitis C has virtually disappeared. At present, injection drug use is the most common risk factor for contracting the disease. However, many patients acquire hepatitis C without any known exposure to blood or to drug use.
The major high-risk groups for hepatitis C are
- People who had blood transfusions before June 1992, when sensitive tests for anti-HCV were introduced for blood screening.
- People who have frequent exposure to blood products. These include patients with hemophilia, solid-organ transplants, chronic renal failure, or cancer requiring chemotherapy.
- Health care workers who suffer needle-stick accidents.
- Injection drug users, including those who used drugs briefly many years ago.
- Infants born to HCV-infected mothers.
Other groups who appear to be at slightly increased risk for hepatitis C are
- People with high-risk sexual behavior, multiple partners, and sexually transmitted diseases.
- People who use cocaine, particularly with intranasal administration, using shared equipment
Most people with chronic hepatitis C have no symptoms of liver disease. If symptoms are present, they are usually mild, nonspecific, and intermittent. They may include
- Mild right-upper-quadrant discomfort or tenderness
- Poor appetite
- Muscle and joint pains.
Similarly, the physical exam is likely to be normal or show only mild liver enlargement or tenderness. Some patients have vascular spiders or red palms.
Extrahepatic Manifestations (Non-liver-related problems from Hepatitis C)
Complications that do not involve the liver develop in 1 to 2 percent of people with hepatitis C. The most common is cryoglobulinemia, which is marked by
- Skin rashes, such as purpura, vasculitis, or urticaria
- Joint and muscle aches
- Kidney disease
- Cryoglobulins, rheumatoid factor, and low complement levels in serum.
Other complications of chronic hepatitis C are
- Porphyria cutanea tarda.
Diseases that are less well documented to be related to hepatitis C are
- Seronegative arthritis
- Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (Sjögren’s syndrome)
- Non-Hodgkin’s type, B-cell lymphomas
- Lichen planus.
If you have any risk factors for contracting hepatitis C or think that you may have hepatitis, contact your family doctor for testing. Hepatitis C infection can be treated (and sometimes cured) with medications.