What is Hepatitis C and Why Should You Care?

How Hepatitis C Affects the Body How Hepatitis C Affects the Body

How Hepatitis C Affects the Body

  • Invisible Symptoms

    In the early stages of the condition, most people with hepatitis C have no symptoms at all. What's more, about 15 to 25 percent of people who become infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) will only develop an acute version of the condition, which is cleared from their system without ever causing damage to the liver.

  • Joints

    While most people with hepatitis C have no symptoms at first, some do experience mild to severe ailments, typically one to three months after exposure. One potential early warning sign is joint pain. Inflammation and pain in the joints and muscles are usually signs that the immune system is attempting to fight off the virus.

  • Digestive System

    Early symptoms of hepatitis C can also include such digestive problems as a loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain.

  • Skin

    A small percentage of people with acute hepatitis C experience jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Jaundice occurs because the liver has difficulty removing bilirubin — the yellowish green pigment found in bile — from the body. Bilirubin builds up in the blood, causing the whites of the eyes and skin to turn yellow — the condition can also turn urine brown and the stools a whitish color.

    There is a positive side to this symptom: It's a clear warning sign to get tested for hepatitis C. The earlier the diagnosis, the sooner treatment can begin.

  • Whole Body

    People who have early-stage hepatitis C symptoms tend to complain of fatigue, weakness, fever, and overall aches and pains. Because of these somewhat vague symptoms, the condition is often dismissed as the flu — and it can go undiagnosed and untreated for years, until serious damage is done.

  • Gallbladder

    About 75 to 85 percent of people infected with HCV go on to develop chronic hepatitis C — that means the disease can last a lifetime. Chronic hepatitis C can cause significant liver damage over the years, but that's not all: The gallbladder is at risk, too. Researchers have found a correlation between hepatitis C and gallbladder disease, in which the gallbladder becomes inflamed, resulting in pain and nausea as well as gallstones. Some people with hepatitis C therefore opt to have their gallbladders removed.

  • Glucose Level

    A number of studies show that people with hepatitis C are at an increased risk for insulin resistance and, hence, are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. This is because an unhealthy, insulin-resistant liver, probably a complication of hepatitis C, produces too much glucose and sends sugar into the bloodstream; meanwhile, muscle and fat in the body have trouble absorbing that glucose from the blood. The buildup of sugar in the bloodstream, combined with the insulin, resistance, creates the risk for type 2 diabetes.

  • Thyroid

    Hepatitis C has been linked to both hypothyroidism, the condition in which an underactive thyroid gland can cause fatigue, forgetfulness, and weight gain; and hyperthyroidism, in which an overactive thyroid can lead to weight loss, weakness, sleep problems, and more. The connection between hepatitis C and the thyroid isn't completely understood, but it's most likely related to the immune system, which while working to fight off the virus may also start attacking itself.

  • Brain

    Forgetfulness, confusion, and changes in mood are all potential complications of hepatitis C. As many as 50 percent of people with HCV complain of "brain fog" symptoms, according to a recent review of research studies. But like many other hepatitis C complications, the underlying cause is unclear. Some studies noted that HCV was found in cerebrospinal fluid, and others found a connection between HCV and cerebral inflammation. People with hepatitis C may also experience depression and anger.

  • Other Body Parts

    People with hepatitis C may experience:

    • Dry mouth
    • Itchy skin
    • Cryoglobulinemia, a condition that causes inflammation of the skin, joints, and kidneys
    • Easier brusing and bleeding
    • HIV infection — about 25 percent of people with HIV also have HCV, in part due to similar modes of transmission. When a person's immune system is compromised by HIV, it becomes easier for him or her to contract another virus, such as hepatitis C.
    • Increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Cirrhosis

    Cirrhosis of the liver occurs when the liver becomes scarred and loses its ability to function properly, and the leading cause of cirrhosis is hepatitis C. In fact, between 5 and 20 percent of people infected with HCV develop cirrhosis, typically over a period of 20 to 30 years.

    Cirrhosis is accompanied by its own set of complications if it's left untreated, including potential kidney failure, increased risk of infections, and confusion and mood changes. Treatments are available to help slow or stop the progression of cirrhosis.

  • Liver Cancer

    Hepatitis C increases the risk of liver cancer. Between 1 and 5 percent of people infected with HCV eventually develop the disease, and about 25 percent of liver cancer cases worldwide may be linked to HCV. Though hepatitis C doesn't necessarilycausecancer, researchers believe that, with hepatitis C and cirrhosis, the right conditions are created for liver cancer to develop.

  • Liver Failure

    Liver failure, or end-stage liver disease, occurs when the liver stops functioning altogether. The only treatment is a liver transplant. Hepatitis C often recurs after the transplant, and the survival rate is about 72 percent for up to five years.

  • Prevention

    To avoid having hepatitis C progress to this stage, get tested as soon as you detect symptoms, or if you think you could be at risk for hepatitis C, and talk to your doctor about treatments. Medication isn't the only part of the puzzle: Making healthy lifestyle modifications — like maintaining a nutritious diet, exercising, and avoiding alcohol — is also necessary.

Last Updated: 9/5/2014

This section created and produced exclusively by the editorial staff of EverydayHealth.com.
© 2019 EverydayHealth.com; all rights reserved.

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