Hepatitis C

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a virus that is most often spread through the blood. If left untreated it can cause serious liver damage, as well as kidney problems and even cancer.

Many people experience no symptoms when they first catch Hepatitis C and for about 20 per cent of people, the virus will be cleared naturally by their immune system within six months.

Other people experience no symptoms but the virus remains active within their bodies for years, during which time it can be passed on to others. Out of these people, some remain well and do not suffer any liver damage, whereas others are not so fortunate and do suffer liver damage.

In the worst cases, Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer and fatal liver failure. It is important to remember that this is only the case for about 20 per cent of people who suffer from chronic Hepatitis C.

What are the symptoms of Hepatitis C?

As mentioned, not everybody experiences symptoms with Hepatitis C, in fact most people will not experience any symptoms at first.

But there are some possible symptoms to look out for, which include fatigue, weight loss, nausea, loss of appetite, flu-like symptoms, loss of concentration, liver pain and alcohol intolerance. Of course, these symptoms can be a sign of other things and if you have one or more of them it certainly does not mean you definitely have Hepatitis C.

If you are worried, the best thing to do is go and see your GP.

How is Hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is usually spread through the blood so, if someone is infected with the virus, it could be passed on by sharing needles for drug-use or tattoos or even by sharing razors and toothbrushes.

This does not mean that the disease will always be passed on in these ways. For the virus to be spread, it has to find a way of entering the body, it has to be of a certain quality and there has to be enough of it.

Hepatitis C cannot be passed on by shaking hands, hugging, kissing or sharing cutlery.

Blood transfusions that were carried out before 1991, or in countries with less strict procedures, are another way someone could have caught Hepatitis C.

Since 1991, all potential blood donors in the UK are now tested for the disease and so the risk of catching Hepatitis C from a blood transfusion these days is very low.

Although it is most common for Hepatitis C to be spread through the blood, it can be passed on through other bodily fluids. So it is possible to contract Hepatitis C through unprotected sexual activity. The best bet is to always use a condom to prevent this and many other sexually transmitted diseases.

Who gets Hepatitis C?

Around 500,000 people in Britain are infected with the Hepatitis C virus and, although the disease is still commonly associated with injecting drug users, there are other ways to catch the disease.

Unclean tattoo needles and blood transfusions that took place some time ago are just a couple of the ways in which someone who has never injected drugs might catch Hepatitis C. It is important to remember that if someone has Hepatitis C it does not mean that they are a drug user.

Well-known Hepatitis C sufferers include the recently deceased founder of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick (who did not die from Hepatitis C, but from an unrelated brain haemorrhage), who believed she contracted the disease from a blood transfusion more than 20 years earlier, before potential blood donors were tested for the disease.

Former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson is also a Hepatitis C sufferer. She has said she believes she caught the disease by sharing a tattoo needle with her ex-husband, rocker Tommy Lee.

How is Hepatitis C treated?

There is no vaccine to prevent against Hepatitis C, but there are effective treatments available. A blood test can be taken to diagnose the virus and treatment is usually a course of drugs which lasts for six to twelve months.

The treatments are not effective for everybody with Hepatitis C and they do not mean that a person can never catch the virus again.

Reduce the risk of you catching Hepatitis C in the first place by not injecting drugs or sharing needles, using only the most hygienic and reputable of tattooists if you get a tattoo and always practising safe sex. Remember, the pill might stop you from becoming pregnant but it won’t do anything to prevent you from catching or passing on diseases.

Who can help?

For more information on Hepatitis C, visit the Hepatitis C Trust online at www.hepctrust.org.uk.

View a gallery of stars raising awareness of Hepatitis C for the Hepatitis C Trust’s ‘What Not to Share’ campaign at www.whatnottoshare.com.

You can read a useful BBC article about Hepatitis C at http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/conditions/hepatitisc1.shtml.

For general health queries, you can try NHS Direct: online at www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk or by phone on 0845 4647 (open 24 hours a day).

Youth Health Talk is a website about young people’s real life health experiences, covering topics including teenage cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and sexual health. You can watch videos of young people talking about their experiences and join in the conversation on the forums at http://www.youthhealthtalk.org