The truth behind Hep C
Hepatitis C, also known as Hep C, is a virus in the blood which causes liver inflammation. It may cause serious liver problems and potentially lead to cirrhosis and even liver cancer. In other words, it’s more serious than most people think. And the truth is that you can have Hep C for years – even decades – without showing any symptoms. However, there is good news: for many patients, Hep C is curable.
It’s easy to get tested for Hep C, as it can be done with a blood test. The Canadian Liver Foundation recommends testing for anyone born between 1945 and 1975.
The sooner Hep C is treated, the better your chances of a complete cure – having no virus detected in your blood when measured 3 months after treatment is completed. But, being cured doesn’t mean that you are safe from being infected with Hep C again.
There’s even more good news: in some cases, the damage caused to your liver by Hep C may be reversible. So, once you’ve been treated, it may be possible for your liver to “heal” itself over time.
How Hep C progresses
You might think that having no symptoms means there’s nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The truth is that you can have Hep C for years – even decades – without showing any symptoms.
The first 6 months of infection with Hep C is considered the acute phase. For most people, an acute infection becomes chronic, which is a far more serious disease that can result in severe liver damage, long-term health problems, and even death.
Did you know?
“Hepatitis C” is the name of the chronic disease AND the virus that causes the disease. If your healthcare professional says that you have Hep C, then you have contracted the virus and you have developed a long-lasting infection. Remember, not everyone who comes into contact with the Hep C virus will develop chronic Hep C.
If you do experience symptoms, they may include:
- Reduced appetite
- Sore muscles and joints
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice (a yellow look to the whites of your eyes and skin)
Chronic Hep C is a silent disease because a person can have it for years without showing symptoms, completely unaware that it’s slowly damaging their liver. And because Hep C isn’t part of a regular check-up, your healthcare professional may not know that you’re at risk.
The good news is that Hep C can be treated, and the sooner you find out if you have Hep C, the sooner you can discuss your options with your healthcare professional. Not all treatments work for everyone, so your healthcare professional will help you figure out what’s best for you.
Do you think you are at risk for Hep C?
Review the risk factors below or take the risk assessment to find out if you should be tested.
Risk factors for Hep C include:
- Born between 1945 and 1975
- Received a blood transfusion, blood products or had an organ transplant in Canada before 1990
- Have a body tattoo or piercing
- Have ever been accidentally stuck with a needle or syringe
- Underwent vaccination, medical procedures, surgery or received a blood transfusion in a country where hepatitis C is common
These aren’t the only risk factors for Hep C. You can learn more about these and other risk factors by taking the risk assessment to find out if you should be tested.
Testing for Hep C
Testing for Hep C isn’t usually part of a regular check-up or blood tests your healthcare professional might normally order for you. Specific tests need to be done if you and your healthcare professional suspect that you might be at risk for Hep C.
There are a few simple tests your healthcare professional will do to determine if you have chronic Hep C:
First, your healthcare professional will do a test to find out if you have antibodies to the Hep C virus (HCV). This can be done with a simple blood test.
If you test positive for antibodies to the Hep C virus, it means at some point in your life, you came into contact with the Hep C virus. These antibodies only show that you have been exposed to the virus – they do NOT protect you against Hep C infection or reinfection.
If you test positive for Hep C virus antibodies, your healthcare professional will need to do more tests to see if you have chronic Hep C. Remember, 1 person in 4 will fight off the virus on their own, but these people will still have antibodies against the virus.
This blood test looks for the genetic material of the virus in your blood. It will show if you still have the virus in your blood and how much of the virus is in your blood. It is the only test that can confirm a diagnosis of Hep C. Your healthcare professional might refer to the results of this test as the “viral load.”
This test can tell what strain (or “genotype”) of Hep C virus you have. There are six common genotypes of Hep C virus, numbered from 1 to 6; genotype 1 is the most common in Canada. Genotypes 2 and 3 account for almost all other Hep C virus infections in Canada. Your genotype will also help your healthcare professional decide what treatments are appropriate for you.
Your healthcare professional may also order tests to see how well your liver is functioning. These might include blood tests or non-invasive scans of your liver.
If you’re not sure what any of your tests are for, talk to a healthcare professional (doctor, nurse, or pharmacist).
Know the facts
Chronic Hep C affects nearly 250,000 Canadians
Nearly 8 out of 10 Canadians with Hep C were born between 1945 and 1975
Nearly half of Canadians with Hep C don't know they are infected
Hep C is a leading cause
of liver transplants
Up to 5% of people with chronic Hep C will die of liver cancer or severe cirrhosis
Hep C is curable