You may have seen numerous publications and commercials about chronic hepatitis C (HCV) and for good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 3.9 million people in the United States alone may have the chronic form of this virus.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 70 million people are affected worldwide.
What exactly is chronic HCV? Simply put, it refers to the ongoing inflammation of your liver. But it can cause symptoms throughout the body. Over time, living with this condition can make your body especially vulnerable to serious health complications.
HCV is spread through contact with blood. It is rarely transmitted through sexual contact with someone infected with the virus. Ultimately, this infection causes inflammation of the liver and a host of other problems that can seriously harm your health.
Hepatitis C and its effects on the body
The virus has two stages, acute and chronic. The acute stage occurs within six months of exposure to the virus. For some, this is a short-term illness. But according to the CDC, most people, about 75 to 80 percent, will develop chronic HCV.
This means that it can last a lifetime. Most people do not realize they have the virus until other symptoms begin within their body.
Although hepatitis A, B, and C viruses cause hepatitis, they are three very different viruses.
The liver's job is to process the blood and filter toxins from your body. It produces proteins, important blood components, and bile, which helps digest food. It also stores glucose and vitamins. HCV causes inflammation that disrupts the liver's ability to perform these vital functions.
The first symptoms can be mild and easily discounted, but early treatment is essential to prevent serious damage. When a chronic infection occurs, over time it can cause cirrhosis or scarring of the liver.
As HCV progresses, symptoms such as skin problems, blood disorders, and weight loss can appear. Dangerous outcomes like severe liver damage, liver cancer, and liver failure can also occur.
A blood test can measure HCV antibodies in the bloodstream. If you have antibodies, it means that you have been exposed to the virus. In most cases, you will need to do a second blood test for your doctor to confirm that there is an HCV infection.
Having a healthy liver is crucial to your health, as it supports many other systems in the body. One of the functions of the liver is to produce bile, a substance necessary to break down fats. Your body stores bile in the gallbladder and then sends it to the initial section of the small intestine when needed.
Bile combines with stomach acids and digestive fluids from the pancreas, which help the intestines absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.
HCV can severely impair the liver's ability to produce bile. Poor bile production can make it difficult and uncomfortable to digest fatty foods. You may also feel some pain throughout your abdomen from a build-up of fluid in your stomach.
This is known as ascites. It occurs when the damaged liver does not produce enough albumin, a substance that regulates the amount of fluid in cells.
Other digestive symptoms include:
· Loss of appetite
· Pale or clay-colored stools
Severe pain can occur if your gallbladder becomes inflamed from HCV. This is an extremely rare cause of gallbladder inflammation and only occurs in the acute stage of the virus.
Central Nervous System
When your liver doesn't filter toxins from your blood, it can damage your central nervous system. This can lead to a variety of symptoms such as sweet or moldy smelling breath, difficulty with small motor skills, and sleep disturbances. Dry eyes and mouth are sometimes associated with HCV.
A buildup of toxins in the brain can cause:
· I forget.
· Lack of concentration.
· Personality changes
Advanced symptoms include:
· Abnormal tremor
· Speak slurred.
Severe cases can cause a coma.
In addition to filtering toxins, the liver also produces proteins necessary for healthy blood and helps regulate blood clotting. A poorly functioning liver can create blood flow problems and increase pressure in the portal (main) vein that leads to the liver.
This can lead to portal hypertension, which can force the blood to find alternate veins. These veins can burst and cause varicose bleeding. This is severe internal bleeding.
A poorly functioning liver cannot absorb, transport, and store iron properly. This can lead to anemia.
Integumentary system (skin, hair and nails)
Hepatitis C is associated with a wide variety of skin problems. Some common conditions include easily bruising, loss of skin pigment, rashes, and itching. Bilirubin is an important substance that comes from the breakdown of hemoglobin.
When the liver can't do its job, bilirubin can build up and cause jaundice, or the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Poor liver function can also lead to poor nutrition. This leads to improper hair and nail growth as well.
Endocrine and immune systems
The endocrine system regulates hormones. As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid gland delivers hormones into the bloodstream. Sometimes HCV can cause the immune system to mistakenly attack or damage thyroid tissue. This can lead to:
· Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), which can cause sleep disorders and weight loss.
· Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), which can cause fatigue and weight gain.
A healthy liver also helps control how sugar is used in the body. The body's inability to control sugar levels can lead to type 2 diabetes.