Infected and You May Not Even Know it: Living with Hepatitis C and Cirrhosis

July 16, 2018
Infected and You May Not Even Know it: Living with Hepatitis C and Cirrhosis

Hepatitis C and Cirrhosis: What’s the Connection?

Did you know 3.5 million Americans currently live with Hepatitis C every day?

Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) is a contagious liver disease that spreads when blood from an infected person comes into contact with a non-infected person. This can occur by sharing needles, hemodialysis, having received a blood transfusion prior to 1992, or through high-risk sexual contact (such as having multiple partners, rough intercourse, or sexual activity with someone who has a sexually transmitted infection or HIV).

Fever, fatigue, abdominal pain, dark urine, and jaundice are a few symptoms of HCV. Unfortunately, 70%-80% of those infected with HCV do not display any signs, making it harder to diagnose and treat.

The longer someone goes without treatment, the higher their risk for developing further health complications such as cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. Prolonged non-treatment of both Hepatitis C and cirrhosis could result in needing a liver transplant or liver cancer.

To understand the impact of HCV, consider the following:

  • 71 million people globally are living with chronic HCV.

  • More than 50% of those impacted by HCV will develop a chronic HCV infection.

  • Chronic liver disease, which is caused by HCV, is the eighth leading cause of death for non-Hispanic blacks 45-64 years old.

  • Approximately 350,000 to 500,000 people die from HCV-related complications each year.

  • If untreated, 25% of the people who have chronic HCV will develop cirrhosis.

What is Cirrhosis?

Cirrhosis is the severe scarring and reduced function of the liver due to chronic liver disease.

But isn't the liver supposed to be able to withstand a lot? Yes and no.

The liver can regenerate cells, but like with any organ or tissue, if the damaged cells go untreated for a significant period, the organ loses its functionality. A healthy liver is the body’s filtration system for the blood coming from the digestive tract, but when a patient has cirrhosis, the natural flow is hindered causing a deficiency in other areas of the body.

According to the NIH, if a patient is exposed to HCV and has a history of long-term, heavy drinking, it will weaken the liver and speed up the onset of cirrhosis.

Other causes of cirrhosis include:

  • Hepatitis B & D

  • Inflammation caused by an autoimmune disease

  • Damage to the bile ducts  

  • Disorders affecting the body’s ability to handle iron and copper

  • Certain medications

Like HCV, early diagnosis of cirrhosis tends to go undetected until the disorder has progressed, and one can detect symptoms like decreased appetite, nose bleeds, weight loss and weakness. A visit to the doctor and thorough exam could reveal any of the following:

  • Pale skin

  • Small testicles

  • Excess breast tissue (in men)

  • Enlarged liver or spleen

  • Decreased alertness  

Depending on how far along the disease is, kidney failure, gallstones, an enlarged spleen, excessive bruising and bleeding could develop due to complications.

Is There a Cure for Cirrhosis?

There is no cure for cirrhosis, other than a liver transplant, but even then, there is a chance the HCV infection can return.

It is possible to live with cirrhosis through early diagnosis, proper medication, and an alcohol-free lifestyle. Being exposed to HCV reduces the liver’s ability to self-regenerate, and alcoholic beverages (even in small quantities) can inflict increased damage to the already weakened organ.

A prescription of direct-acting antivirals and HCV medications can also help slow the attack on the liver.

HCV and Cirrhosis Prevention

  • Ensure any needles used on you (for tattoos, piercings, etc.) are sterile and properly handled

  • Do not touch blood or open sores of someone you suspect is infected

  • Avoid vigorous sexual interactions

If you or someone you know think they may have been exposed to HCV or has cirrhosis, let the professionals at Texas Digestive Disease Consultants help. Whether it be assistance with a diagnosis, working through a treatment plan, or seeking answers to questions you have, Texas Digestive Disease Consultants can make your life with cancer easier to handle. For more information, visit our website at https://www.tddctx.com/.

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