What is hepatitis C and what are its symptoms?
Dr. Choi: Hepatitis C is an infection caused by a virus that primarily affects the liver. The damage it causes can lead to chronic liver disease and eventually end-stage liver disease. Today the most common way to contract hepatitis C is by using unsterile needles or syringes. It’s also transmissible by bodily fluids like blood or semen.
Oftentimes, people don’t know they’re infected with hepatitis C. We see it in our clinics all the time: Patients felt fine, but their liver enzyme levels happened to be a bit elevated in an otherwise routine checkup. A lot of times with liver disease, unless you’ve gotten to the point where your liver is really damaged and scarred, you might not have any symptoms.
When hepatitis C is first contracted, you might feel like you have an infection that feels like a cold, with body aches, fatigue, some abdominal discomfort — but it’ll eventually pass even if you didn’t fully clear the virus. That can make people think they just had a cold. Meanwhile, the virus could be sitting around in your body and causing damage to your liver over time.
How is hepatitis C different from hepatitis A and B?
The biggest difference is that hepatitis A is usually a self-limited disease, meaning your body is typically able to clear the virus on its own. Afterward, you’ll have generated antibodies and built immunity to it. Hepatitis A is commonly contracted when traveling, and you can feel terrible when you first get it — symptoms might include nausea, vomiting, and possibly even becoming jaundiced if your liver becomes very inflamed. But typically, you get better rather quickly.
With hepatitis B or C, there is a chance your body can clear the virus on its own, but it’s also likely to hang out in your body, where it can keep attacking the liver. If left unchecked or untreated, both can cause end-stage liver disease and liver cancer.
There’s no cure for hepatitis B, but there is a vaccine to prevent infection up front, and there is treatment for it if you do contract it. The recommended treatment is a lifelong medication regimen to suppress the virus, much like with HIV, so that the viral load in your body is at an almost undetectable level. But you’re never cleared 100% from the disease. Hepatitis C, meanwhile, is completely curable with medication, but there is no vaccine for it.