Protecting Yourself From Hepatitis C

Attention to a few important tips can protect you from an often silent disease.

ByABC News
February 10, 2009, 5:55 PM

July 13, 2007 — -- A 49-year-old male tattoo artist believed his tiredness was related to aging.

He'd always felt healthy and hadn't given doctors much thought. He'd partied a bit over the years, but an HIV test he took not long ago turned out to be negative. But his age and the fact that he was a bit overweight led him to check in with a doctor.

It may have been a decision that saved his life.

As he sat listening to his doctor review his laboratory tests, he heard something unexpected. "Your liver seems to be inflamed, and we ought to do some more tests."

A blood draw and a liver sonogram later, he learned that he had liver damage from chronic hepatitis C and that his liver might be on the way to cirrhosis, a terminal disease he thought only alcoholics got.

Devastating accounts like the one above are not as uncommon as one might think. Chronic viral hepatitis affects more than 2 million Americans, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30,000 Americans become infected with hepatitis C each year.

Hepatitis C is one of several viruses that attack the liver. Only 15 percent of people can fight off the infection without treatment. The other 85 percent develop chronic viral hepatitis, in which the immune system tries to destroy the virus, leading to inflammation and scarring.

Over time usually decades this scarring leads to cirrhosis. Liver cancer can also occur but is a much rarer cause of death than cirrhosis.

Hepatitis C is spread primarily by blood. Sex is not a high-risk activity, but this, too, can occasionally transmit infection.

More often than not, however, hepatitis C is acquired by sharing needles or snorting cocaine through shared "straws," which often contain small amounts of blood.

Some people acquired hepatitis C from tattoos or piercings before sterile equipment became required by law. Others contracted the virus from blood transfusions before blood-supply screening began in the 1980s.