What Is Hepatitis C? Symptoms, Risk Factors And Treatment Explained

A used tattoo needle could cost you your life.

Around 214,000 people in the UK are estimated to be living with hepatitis C, but according to the The Hepatitis C Trust, at least 100,000 people are unaware that they have it.

The virus is contracted through blood-to-blood contact and is most commonly transferred via needles used for drugs or tattoos.

It causes very few symptoms until it’s in its most advanced stages, but if left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to into potentially fatal liver failure.

For that reason, the charity wants to raise awareness of the risk factors associated with the disease to mark World Hepatitis Day.

According to Rupert George, media and campaigns manager at The Hepatitis C Trust, the most common symptom of the virus is feeling unexplainably tired.

Other symptoms can also include pains in the upper part of the abdomen, dry eyes, irritable bowel and irritable bladder.

But George stresses that the vast majority of people with hepatitis C do not have any noticeable symptoms, which is why it’s often referred to as a “silent disease”.

Because of this, he believes it’s more important to know the risk factors for catching the virus so people can think about any times they may have been infected.

“The most common way is injecting and drug use, but people who are in contact with drugs services are much more likely to be tested for hepatitis C than any other group of people, so they’re also most likely to know that they have it,” he tells The Huffington Post UK.

People who use steroids and other image or performance enhancing drugs are thought to have levels of hepatitis C nine times higher than the general population.

But people living with the virus unknowingly may have contracted the disease through other forms of needle-use.

“I’m aware of someone who contracted it through a botox injection,” he says.

“You can get it from a tattoo, you can get it through piercing, you can get it through anything where your skin is being punctured and there’s the potential for blood-to-blood contact.”

George says getting a tattoo or receiving medical treatment aboard, where regulations are sometimes less strict, is particularly risky.

“If you go and have a tattoo make sure the tattoo artist uses fresh ink and fresh needles,” he says.

“It’s a very robust virus. Even if the artist uses a fresh needle, but then dips the needle in the ink they’ve used to tattoo the previous customer, there’s the potential for somebody to become infected through the ink.”

Although the risk of hepatitis C being transmitted via sex is fairly low, there is the potential for it to be passed between partners.

In this instance, vaginal sex during menstruation or anal sex with the associated risk of bleeding carry the highest risk of infection.

For this reason, men who have sex with men are considered particularly at risk.

“There’s also the chance to contract it with people who use tubs of lube during sex,” George adds.

“If you’re using the same lube, that can be something the virus can stay in and it can stay there long enough for someone to become infected via that route.”

Finally, anyone who received a blood transfusion before 1991 may be living with the virus without knowing it, as before this time there wasn’t a test available for it.

“There are women with hepatitis C who contracted it due to a blood transfusion during childbirth,” George explains.

If any of these risk factors apply to you or you’re just concerned about hepatitis C in general, you can ask your GP for a simple blood test that will reveal if you’ve been infected.

There’s no need to panic if you come back with a positive result as in the vast majority of cases, hepatitis C can now be cured.

“Up until about three years ago there was only one treatment available which really wasn’t very nice. It was quite akin to chemotherapy and it didn’t work for quite a lot of people particularly well. It was very long - about 48 weeks,” George explains.

“But now there are these new fantastic treatments that can work as quickly as eight weeks and cure 90% of people.”

Most people who receive treatment will receive a combination of two or three medications to fight the virus – known as combination therapy.

“It’s in your interested to get tested,” George says. “There is a cure and you can get it sorted for yourself.”

HuffPost blogger Toni Feldstein was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1985 and says she’s aware of stigma attached to the illness because of the misconception that it’s a “dirty disease”.

But she wants people who have been diagnosed to feel confident in talking about the virus in order to raise awareness.

“Don’t be afraid to say it out loud. People will respect your honesty and openness and you will feel more empowered by standing in your truth and integrity. Don’t let it limit you as a human being,” she says.

“Embarrassment, shame and guilt only lead to low self-esteem. There is no shame in having your disease or living with it. If some people have a negative reaction to it, it is their issue, not yours.”

For more information about hepatitis C, visit The Hepatitis C Trust or talk to your GP.

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