Protect yourself from hepatitis C

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Almost 4 million Americans have the hepatitis C virus, and most don't know it. Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by HCV. The infection is spread by contact with the blood of an infected person.

Hepatitis C is serious for some people, but not for others. Most infected people will carry the virus for life and have some liver damage, but many do not feel sick. Liver damage can eventually lead to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and liver failure.

How do you find out if you have hepatitis C? Ask your doctor for a blood test. You should be tested if you were notified that you received blood that possibly contained hepatitis C virus or if you received a blood transfusion or solid organ transplant before July 1992, when improved blood tests were put into use.

Other risk factors for developing HCV are injecting street drugs, snorting cocaine, having tattoos or being on long-term kidney dialysis.

"Most of my patients have been referred to me because their primary care provider did a screening antibody test based on a history of risky behavior or perhaps an abnormal liver function test as part of a routine physical," said John Sharp. M.D., a gastroenterologist with Yampa Valley Medical Associates. "The other reason would be that a person attempted to donate blood and the virus was then detected."

Symptoms include fatigue, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, fever, weakness, mild abdominal pain and occasionally, dark urine, itching and jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin). However, 80 percent of people have no signs or symptoms.

The goals of Hepatitis C prevention nationally are to reduce the incidence of new infections by reducing HCV transmissions, and to reduce the risk of chronic liver disease in HCV-infected individuals through appropriate medical management and counseling. According to the Center for Disease Control, most HCV infections are due to illegal drug use.

The CDC strongly warns against injecting drugs or sharing drugs, syringes, cookers, or other drug paraphernalia. People with risk factors should get vaccinated for hepatitis A and hepatitis B. The CDC recommends not sharing toothbrushes, razors, earrings or other personal care items that may have blood on them.

Healthcare workers should always follow routine barrier precautions, safely handle needles and other sharps and get vaccinated for hepatitis B. Anyone considering getting a tattoo or body piercing should also consider the risks and make sure the artist or piercer follows good health practices.

HCV is not spread by breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, food or water, casual contact, sneezing, coughing, sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses. Although HCV is rarely spread by sex, the CDC recommends using contraceptive protection.

If there is a chance you are HCV positive, see your doctor for a blood test. If you test positive for hepatitis C consult with your doctor to see if additional tests should be run to check your diagnosis and to see if you have liver damage. Seek treatment if indicated by your doctor.

Although there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, there are medications licensed for treatment. Diagnosed patients are assessed to determine whether medication will be helpful. It's important for people with hepatitis C to get adequate sleep, eat small, well-balanced meals, exercise, avoid stress and eliminate irritating substances such as alcohol from their daily diet.

As with most diseases, early diagnosis is important so liver disease can be assessed and possibly inhibited. To prevent spreading the disease to others, HCV-positive people should never donate blood, organs or tissue.

Lisa A. Bankard coordinates Yampa Valley Medical Center's wellness and community education programs.

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