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Hepatitis C: Don’t Let Myths Go Viral

Hepatitis C: Don’t Let Myths Go Viral

Hepatitis is one of those medical conditions that can be downright befuddling. That might be due to its alphabet-soup nature: There are hepatitis A, B, C, D and E forms, all involving different viruses and having distinct symptoms and courses (not to mention alcoholic hepatitis, which isn’t caused by a virus at all). These types all damage the liver, but beyond that, it can be hard to keep them straight.

But it’s important to know the facts, especially about hepatitis (hep) C. Hep C is one of the most serious forms of the disease and the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S. It’s a viral infection mainly transmitted through exposure to infected blood. Untreated, it causes liver inflammation and damage, often leading to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.

Here are some of the more common hepatitis C myths, along with the truth:

  1. Hep C is a sexually transmitted disease. Not really. In rare cases, you can get the virus from an infected sexual partner, but that requires contact with blood during sex. If you are in a long-term, monogamous relationship with someone with hep C, it’s unlikely you’ll become infected. However, your hep C risk is higher if you have multiple sexual partners, have a sexually transmitted disease (especially HIV) or you have rough sex. Experts do recommend safe-sex practices, though, especially for people in higher-risk groups.
  2. If you have hep C, you feel sick. Often not until the disease is advanced. Most people do not have any symptoms at all, and even if they do, the symptoms may not appear for up to 6 months after infection. Many people don’t know they’re infected, but they can still spread the disease to others. Then the virus can quietly attack your liver for years, only finally causing symptoms once a serious problem has developed.
  3. Hep C is caused by drinking too much. Wrong. Hep C can only be caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), not by drinking alcohol. Confusion is common because chronic hep C can lead to the same complication that chronic alcoholism does – cirrhosis of the liver. Similar results, but from very different causes. The most common way to catch the virus is by sharing a needle with an infected person. That includes IV drug use, or getting a piercing or tattoo with unclean equipment.
  4. Hep C will clear up on its own. Not usually. About 15 to 25 percent of people who become infected will clear the virus without treatment—and they may not even know they’re infected—but for most people, the infection becomes chronic. Without treatment, up to 20 percent will develop cirrhosis and 5 percent will die due to the disease.
  5. You can get hep c by kissing or sharing a toothbrush. Highly unlikely. The risk for transmission through personal care items is very low. If hep C is spread within a household, it’s usually through blood-to-blood contact. You can’t get the virus through kissing or touching. You also can’t get hep C from food handlers, teachers, medical personnel or other service providers without blood exposure.
  6. You can get hep C from a blood transfusion. Nope. Since screening of donated blood became available in 1992, the risk of getting the disease this way (or through an organ transplant) is tiny.
  7. There is no cure for hepatitis C. Now it’s a real possibility. For many years, the drugs available to treat hep C weren’t very effective at clearing the virus, and their side effects could be extreme. But new anti-viral agents can technically “cure” the illness—meaning there’s no evidence of the virus in the bloodstream after treatment—more than 90 percent of the time. 
  8. Once you’ve had hep C, you can’t get it again. Unfortunately, you might. Having had hepatitis C once doesn’t make you immune to it in the future, though the risk of a second infection is much less. The best way to avoid “reinfection,” as it’s called, is not to use injection drugs or share needles, and practice safe sex with a new partner or a partner who has injected drugs.
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