10 FAQs Loved Ones Have About a Hep C Diagnosis

Answers to Questions You'll Have When a Loved Says "I Have Hep C"

Husband and wife embracing
Sean Justice/Getty Images

Those close to us are often dealing with more than we know. For 3.2 million Americans and close to 150 million people worldwide, this can mean dealing with a diagnosis of hepatitis C. Many of us know someone close to us with hepatitis C but don't know about their diagnosis. In many cases, people don't know of their own diagnosis.

As we test more people to find those who are undiagnosed, more of us will have loved ones who have newly found out that they have hepatitis C.

They may share this news with you, and you're sure to have questions. Here are a few of the most frequently asked ones.

1. What Is Hep C and Will My Loved One Get Better on Their Own?

Hepatitis C is a virus that causes liver damage. By definition, hepatitis causes hepatic inflammation, which means it can inflame and damage the liver. The effects can vary. This disease can be mild and not recognized. It can also become serious and life-threatening.

Hepatitis C is called "acute" when it causes illness soon after infection. Acute hepatitis C can last a few weeks to a few months in the first 6 months after infection. It usually begins 10 to 14 weeks after initial exposure and infection. Most people do not know that they are infected or sick, initially, and do not have or do not recognize any symptoms.

Most people who have Acute hepatitis C will then go on to have a longer term illness, including those who weren't ill.

Some people clear the virus entirely on their own. Of every 10 people acutely infected, 1 or 2 will clear the virus. Those who are most likely to clear the virus are younger (less than 40), female, HIV negative, and otherwise have a good, working immune system. Those who become sicker in the acute stage and develop jaundice (yellow eyes, yellow skin, or yellow under the tongue) are more likely to clear the virus.

Getting sick is part of the immune response fighting the virus.

2. Can I Get Hep C Too?

You don't need to worry about getting the virus from a loved one. There are only a limited number of ways that hepatitis C can spread. Safe disposal of needles is important. If you're loved one takes insulin for diabetes or another injectable medication, it's important to safely dispose of any needles. Most cases come from:

  • Sharing needles or syringes (for medical care, to inject drugs, or for unregulated tattoos or body art)
  • A needlestick (such as in a healthcare facility, from home medical care, or from needles used to inject drugs)
  • Being born (if the mother has hepatitis C)

Less common cases result from:

  • Sexual activity, especially with HIV co-infection
  • Using someone else's personal items that have blood, like razors or toothbrushes
  • A blood transfusion or an organ or tissue transplant if testing is inadequate or failed to identify the virus. This is very low risk as healthcare facilities should follow safety protocols and test blood/organs.

    If your partner has hepatitis C, you might be concerned about the risk from sexual transmission. Fortunately, hepatitis C is rarely transmitted sexually. If you or your partner has hepatitis C you should talk to your doctor about the risk. If you have multiple partners, you should rely on safer sex to protect yourself from HIV and other STDs as well. Fortunately, many longterm monogamous partners of those with hepatitis C never become infected. Where one or more partners have HIV, there is more risk of transmitting hepatitis C and condoms are still needed even if both partners have HIV.

    4. What Treatment Options Are Available?

    In the past, treatment was often long and painful without guaranteed success. The treatment used to require injections and often made patients tearful, depressed, or angry as a side effect of one of the medications. Treatment now has come a long way. There are now pills that can be taken for as little as 12 weeks that can make hepatitis C go away and never come back.

    The chance of being successfully treated used to depend heavily on what strain (genotype) of hepatitis C your loved one has. Now there are treatment options for the 6 strains we see.

    These regimens can be as short as 12 weeks, depending on how healthy you are and what type of hepatitis C you have. These regimens can include only oral pills and don't need to include the drug that can lead to mood changes.

    Afterwards, most patients clear the virus. They are said to have an SVR (Sustained Virologic Response). This means 12 to 24 weeks after treatment, those treated have no virus in their blood. Relapse is rare (under 1 to 2 percent), though some people become infected again.

    5. Is There a Chance My Loved One Will Pass Away?

    Not all strains are treatable. Additionally, as hepatitis C progresses, the damage it causes can be irreversible to the liver, like cirrhosis. It can also lead to cancer in the liver. Liver damage can also worsen kidney disease, leading to further kidney problems (like needing dialysis) for some. Overall, it's best to speak with a medical professional about prognosis, since it does vary case by case.

    6. Can My Loved One Still Be Health With Hep C?

    Yes. It's important they get the care they need to make sure the virus does not progress. They should still see a doctor or other medical professional even if they feel well. They might be able to start medications and never have to worry about being sick.

    7. Are Hepatitis B and C Related?

    Hepatitis C and hepatitis B are totally different viruses. They are unrelated. They both cause liver inflammation and damage, but the viruses are quite different (and spread differently, as hepatitis B is more likely to spread sexually).

    It is important though to get vaccinated for hepatitis B. This is especially important if your loved one already have hepatitis C as does not want to risk having any other possible damage to your liver.

    8. Are Hepatitis B and C Related?

    Hepatitis A also causes liver inflammation and damage but the virus is very different from hepatitis C. It spreads fecal-oral, often through food, water, and if hands are unwashed, especially by food handlers.

    You and your loved one should get vaccinated for hepatitis A. It's best to avoid any other possible damage to your liver.

    9. How Did My Love One Get Hep C?

    Many people around the world get hepatitis C from reused needles. This can be because they went to a hospital that reused syringes. It can be because decades ago they injected heroin.

    In the past, blood was not tested for hepatitis C. The virus wasn't discovered until 1989. (It used to be called Non-A, Non-B hepatitis). In the US, blood has been screened for hepatitis C since 1992, but any transfusions before then could have been a risk for hepatitis C.

    Some health facilities abroad have not properly disposed of needles and syringes after each use. Sometimes medical devices are reused without being properly cleaned and sterilized. As a result, in some countries, rates of hepatitis C are high and the virus is widely found.

    Some of the highest hepatitis C prevalence rates have been seen in the Middle East, especially in Egypt (close to 15 percent are infected). Rates have also been high in Pakistan. In addition, some countries in other regions have been found to have high rates, such as Italy and Indonesia.

    People often want to know how or why someone got sick. The thing is, it often doesn't matter as much as we think. Sometimes we focus more on how someone got an infection than the person in front of us and what they need now.

    10. How Can I Help My Loved One?

    Stigma and denial around the disease often keeps people from discussing their diagnosis. It's important that your loved one feels comfortable talking to you about this disease. If it's due to an ongoing substance abuse issue, it may be important to address. If it's due to a clinic reusing needles, it's also important to know. Overall though, work together to improve quality of life as best you can.

    Sources:

    World Health Organization. Hepatitis C.

    Continue Reading