What Women Should Know about Hepatitis C

The hepatitis C virus.
The hepatitis C virus. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

An estimated 2.7 million people in the United States are living with chronic hepatitis C, but many don't realize they are infected because they don't look or feel sick. Women, especially those who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant, should be aware of their risk, as hepatitis C can be passed to babies during birth.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that is typically spread through contact with the blood of an infected person.

The illness begins as acute hepatitis C, a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months of exposure to the virus. There were 29,718 reported cases of acute hepatitis C virus infections reported in the U.S. in 2013. Acute infection leads to life-long chronic infection in 85 percent of people. The most common reasons for acquiring the virus include sharing drugs needles, needlestick injuries in health care settings and being born to a mother with hepatitis C.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is often called a "hidden disease" or "silent epidemic" because those infected with are often unaware for 10 to 30 years after exposure. The symptoms of hepatitis C are easy to misdiagnose and often resemble the flu or a variety of other conditions. When symptoms are present they can include extreme fatigue, nausea, liver pain and depression.

Risk Factors for Hepatitis C

Because symptoms of infection often do not present for many years, it's important to understand the risk factors and identify if any apply to you before having a child.

Talk to your doctor if you fall into any of these risk groups:

  • Those who received clotting factor prior to 1987.
  • Those who have shared razors, toothbrushes or other products that could contain blood with an infected person.
  • Those whose mother was infected at the time of your birth.
  • Healthcare workers exposed to needle sticks, sharps or mucosal exposure to hepatitis C-positive blood.
  • People who have had unprotected sex with multiple partners, or history of STDs.
  • Those who have had unsanitary tattooing or body piercing.

It is important to understand your risk of hepatitis C, both for your own health and that of your family. If any of the risks do apply to you, don't panic. Talk with your doctor to learn about being tested for the virus. If you do have hepatitis C, it is not guaranteed that you will transmit the virus to your child. About 6 of every 100 babies born to mothers with the virus become infected (that risk increases if the mother also has HIV). Talk to your doctor before planning a family to learn about steps you can take to protect your child.

Source:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Viral Hepatitis - Hepatitis C Information. http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm.

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