Hepatitis C symptoms often go overlooked because they are similar to common illnesses, like the flu. In fact, most people with hepatitis C don’t experience symptoms until decades after they contract the virus — after their liver is damaged. That’s the scary thing about hepatitis C — it often becomes a chronic condition before people even know they have it. It’s also the leading cause of liver cancer, the most common reason for liver transplants in the U.S. and a common cause of cirrhosis. Plus, studies show that the prevalence of hepatitis C is on the rise.
A very recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that cases of hepatitis C virus infection in U.S. women in their reproductive years doubled from 2006 to 2014, rising from roughly 15,000 cases to 30,000. As a result, an estimated 1,700 infants were born with hepatitis C between 2011 and 2014. (1)
So what are the causes of hepatitis C and how do you know if you’re infected? Keep reading to answer these questions. If you think you’re at risk of contracting the virus, make an appointment to get tested. The sooner your doctor diagnoses you, the higher your chances of fighting the virus, even with natural remedies that support your liver and help it to function properly.
What Is Hepatitis C?
Like hepatitis A and hepatitis B, hepatitis C is an infectious liver disease that’s caused by a virus. There are at least six different genotypes and 50 subtypes. Seventy-four percent of Americans have genotype 1. This makes it the most common type in the United States.
When the hepatitis C virus first infects a person, he or she may experience hepatitis C symptoms caused by an inflamed liver. Unlike many other viral infections, the hepatitis C virus does not attack the immune system. It causes an inflammatory response within the liver. (2)
Some people are able to fight the virus when it’s still in the acute phase. But research shows that 75 to 85 percent of people infected with hepatitis C progress to a chronic infection that persists for more than six months. Chronic hepatitis C causes tiny scars in the liver, disabling proper liver function.
The liver works hard to detoxify your blood, produce bile needed to digest fat, regulate blood composition, store essential nutrients and break down hormones. When the liver doesn’t work properly, it can negatively affect the entire body. Because chronic hepatitis C leads to inflammation and scarring of the liver, it can cause serious health concerns, including the following:
- Cirrhosis: Researchers estimate that up to 20 percent of those chronically infected with hepatitis C will develop liver cirrhosis within 20 to 25 years of contracting hepatitis C. Cirrhosis is a serious disease that involves the development of scar tissue in the liver. This causes liver dysfunction that impairs the organ’s essential processes, like blood flow, the elimination of waste and toxins from the body, the digestion of certain essential nutrients and the regulation of hormone levels. (3)
- Liver failure: The most common reason for a liver transplant in the United States is hepatitis C-induced liver failure. Unfortunately, data shows that approximately 50 percent of individuals who have received a liver transplant due to hepatitis C liver failure go on to experience a recurrence of the virus. (4)
- Liver cancer: Hepatocellular carcinoma, or cancer of the liver, is the “fifth most prevalent cancer and the third leading cause of cancer-related death,” according to research published in Recent Results of Cancer Research. The majority of liver cancer cases are associated with chronic viral hepatitis. As the incidence of hepatitis C viral infections continue to increase, researchers expect rates of liver cancer to rise as well, with the majority of cases caused by hepatitis C-induced cirrhosis. (5)
- Death: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of every 100 persons infected with the hepatitis C virus, approximately 1–5 of them will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer. In 2014, almost 20,000 people died from issues caused by hepatitis C, such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. (6)
Signs & Symptoms of Hepatitis C
For some people, it can be hard to tell if they have hepatitis C because the symptoms aren’t very noticeable until damage is already done to the liver. This is why it’s sometimes called a “silent infection.” In fact, 45–85 percent of people who have hepatitis C don’t know it. (7) It’s common to have the infection for over 15 years before ever noticing hepatitis C symptoms.
The CDC states that 20–30 percent of people newly infected by the disease experience hepatitis C symptoms, usually within 4–12 weeks of onset. The symptoms of hepatitis C are similar to other common illnesses, like the flu. This is why people typically don’t realize that they are infected with a serious viral disease. People who have contracted hepatitis C may notice the following health issues (8):
- bleeding easily
- taking longer for bleeding to stop
- bruising easily
- swelling in the legs
- joint pain
- sore muscles
- dark-colored urine
- swelling of the belly
- stomach pain
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- yellowed eyes and skin (jaundice)
- itchy skin
You can do a simple blood test to find out if you have hepatitis C. People at risk of contracting the virus should be tested because hepatitis C symptoms usually don’t become noticeable until after liver damage has already begun. When a person tests positive for hepatitis C, he or she can begin treatment immediately and will take precautions to ensure that the virus won’t spread to others.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the following groups of people should be tested for hepatitis C (9):
- adults born from 1945–1965
- injection drug users
- people with HIV
- people who have received clotting factor concentrates made before 1987
- anyone who was ever on long-term hemodialysis
- those with abnormal ALT (alanine aminotransferase) levels
- anyone who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
Hepatitis C Causes & Risk Factors
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus that spreads through infected blood. The blood of an infected person enters the bloodstream of someone who is not infected. Here’s an explanation of some of the leading causes and risk factors of hepatitis C:
- Drug use: Today, the highest risk of infection is from sharing needles to inject drugs. According to research published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, there is an ongoing epidemic of hepatitis C in the U.S. among young adult injection-drug users. Researchers point out high-risk locations, including suburban and rural areas in Wisconsin, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida and a Native American community in Northern Plains. Outbreaks are also higher among young white adults who are 30 years old or younger and have a history of prescription opioid use. (10) Studies show that 8–25 percent of people under the age of 30 who inject drugs will contract hepatitis C. The prevalence continues to rise as the number of drug users has continued to increase in recent years. And data suggests that incidence rates are highest among people new to injected drug use, as 25 percent of them become infected with hepatitis C within two years of beginning injected drugs. (11, 12)
- Sexual activity: The transmission of hepatitis C through sexual activity remains a controversial subject among scientists. Research shows that the risk of hepatitis C transmission depends on the type of sexual relationship. A 2013 study conducted at the University of California San Francisco evaluated 500 couples that consisted of one hepatitis C positive person in order to research the risk of spreading hepatitis C within monogamous, heterosexual couples.Researchers found that hepatitis C virus prevalence among partners was 4 percent, with a maximum incidence rate of hepatitis C transmission by sex among heterosexual, monogamous couples being 0.07 percent per year. (13) Although the prevalence among monogamous, heterosexual couples is low, the risk of spreading hepatitis C is greater among male couples, especially those infected with HIV. The risk is also greater for men and women with multiple sexual partners. (14, 15)
- Being born between 1945–1965: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “of the estimated 3.2 million people chronically infected with hepatitis C in the U.S., approximately 75 percent were born during 1945-1965.” National data suggests that people born in these years are five times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C. In fact, it’s the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants among people from this age group. (16)
- Childbirth: Mothers can also pass the virus to their infants during childbirth. Research shows that the type of childbirth, whether C-section or vaginal birth, does not influence transmission. Also, mothers who engage in active drug use and also have HIV are more likely to pass the hepatitis C virus to their newborns. (17)
Casual contact, like hugging, holding hands, sharing utensils or kissing will not spread the virus. If the blood of an infected person enters an area of broken skin, the virus can spread.
So people with hepatitis C should not share razor blades, toothbrushes or nail clippers with others. Hepatitis C is not a hereditary disease; it can only spread when an infected person shares the blood of a non-infected person.
Conventional Treatment for Hepatitis C
The first step in hepatitis C treatment is for your doctor to evaluate you for the presence or severity of liver disease. Your doctor will most likely use liver function tests to determine if any damage has already been done to your liver since you were infected. Your treatment will depend on the condition of your liver and the hepatitis C genotype that you have.
A person with acute hepatitis C can be treated with medications. This can sometimes help to prevent the development of chronic hepatitis C. However, most people don’t know they have the virus until it’s already chronic and there is liver damage. Treatment for chronic hepatitis C involves antiviral medicines. Sometimes people need to try different combinations of medicines until they find what works for their bodies.
There are a number of FDA-approved hepatitis medications. Most of them fall into one of these categories:
- Protease inhibitors — Used to attack the virus and stop it from reproducing.
- Polymerase inhibitors — Blocks a specific protein that the hepatitis C virus needs to grow.
- Direct-acting antivirals — Interferes with enzymes that the hepatitis C relies on to multiply.
In June of 2016, the FDA approved a drug called Epclusa, which is the first medication that can be used to treat all hepatitis C genotypes. This drug contains a combination of antiviral medications. It’s usually given in combination with another drug called ribavirin to treat patients with cirrhosis. Side effects of Epclusa include slowing heartbeat, shallow breathing, headache, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia and trouble concentrating.
8 Natural Ways to Manage Hepatitis C Symptoms
Zinc is necessary for normal liver function and it plays a role in multiple aspects of the immune system. Several studies have found that zinc supplementation helps to improve symptoms of hepatitis C, including digestive issues, weight loss and hair loss. Zinc is also a powerful antioxidant that boosts immune function, which is important for people fighting the hepatitis C virus. (20)
Research shows that probiotics help to support the liver because the beneficial bacteria in the gut promotes the health of the liver and allows it to function properly. Probiotics also improve the immune system’s defenses so that it can fight off the overgrowth of pathogens that lead to disease. If there are too many unhealthy bacteria in the intestines, this can have a serious impact on the liver. One study published in Hepatitis Monthly found that probiotic therapy can reduce the symptoms and improve different types of liver disease. Researchers also noted that probiotic therapy is safe, noninvasive and inexpensive when used by patients with liver disease. (21)
3. Black Seed Oil
Black seed oil benefits the function of the liver due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and immune-stimulating effects. A key compound of black seed oil, thymoquinone, protects the liver from injury through several mechanisms like scavenging free radicals and elevating glutathione levels. Research shows that black seed oil protects the liver from liver damage. Also, it can help to postpone the progression of chronic liver disease. (22)
4. Vitamin D
Research shows that it’s common for people with chronic hepatitis C to have a vitamin D deficiency because it needs to be stored in the liver and fatty tissues. Getting enough vitamin D will help to enhance immune function, improve mood and concentration, and even fight diabetes, which is common among people with hepatitis C. Studies show that taking vitamin D supplements along with hepatitis C medications can have positive effects by helping to raise vitamin D levels. (23, 24)
5. Eat a Well-Balanced Diet
Loss of appetite and weight loss are common symptoms of hepatitis C. But it’s important that people with the virus eat a healthy and well-balanced diet in order to ensure that they are getting essential vitamins and minerals. If you are having trouble eating or you are experiencing digestive problems, stick to small, simple meals and water throughout the day. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (like avocados and coconut oil) and high-fiber foods that will help to regulate digestion. Also, consuming probiotic foods can be beneficial, and so will foods that help to cleanse the liver so that it can function properly, like sweet potatoes, bananas, ginger root and even liver from organic, grass-fed cattle. Stay away from refined carbohydrates and sugars, sugary drinks and processed foods that will only damage the liver further.
6. Avoid Alcohol and Drug Use
For people with liver disease, their livers cannot break down alcohol quickly enough, which leads to inflammation and toxicity. Plus, alcohol makes it more difficult for your liver to absorb essential nutrients. So, drinking alcohol can contribute to vitamin and mineral deficiencies that will make hepatitis C symptoms worse. Injected drug use is one of the leading causes of hepatitis C. If you are already infected, you can spread it to others if you keep using. Plus, you’re harming your body and spirit with these drugs and increasing your chances of becoming another death of despair. Quit drinking alcohol and using drugs immediately, and get help if you need it — it can save your life. (25)
7. Engage in Gentle Physical Activity
Gentle exercise throughout the week can help you to relieve some hepatitis C symptoms, like tiredness and low energy. Some great forms of gentle exercise include yoga, pilates, qigong and tai chi. Even a walk outside can be beneficial by helping to boost energy levels and raising your vitamin D levels too. The best part about all of these exercises is that they not only work your body, but they benefit your mind and spirit as well. This can be extremely important when you’re struggling with hepatitis C symptoms and associated health issues.
8. Take Precautions to Prevent Spreading the Virus
In order to prevent spreading the hepatitis C virus, there are some precautions that you can take. Do not share any of your personal items that may have blood of them, such as razors or toothbrushes. If you have an open cut or sore, cover it until it has healed completely. Also, don’t donate blood, organs, tissue or semen. Remember that hepatitis C cannot spread by casual contact, like hugging, kissing, holding hands or coughing. And, there is a low risk of transmission from sex when you’re in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. If you are not in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship, use condoms to prevent the spread of hepatitis C.
If you choose to use herbal supplements to help manage your hepatitis C symptoms, do so under the guidance of your doctor. Medications and even herbal remedies can stress your liver. This can be extremely problematic for people who have hepatitis C-induced cirrhosis or liver disease. Plus, some herbal supplements interact with hepatitis C medications, so tell your doctor exactly what you’re taking.
- Hepatitis C is an infectious liver disease caused by a virus. There are at least six different genotypes and 50 subtypes. Seventy-four percent of Americans have genotype 1.
- Of every 100 persons infected with the hepatitis C virus, approximately 1–5 of them will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer. In 2014, almost 20,000 people died from issues caused by hepatitis C, such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.
- Hepatitis C symptoms usually develop after someone has the virus for many years, when the liver is already damaged. Some common symptoms of hepatitis C include fatigue, bleeding easily, bruising easily, jaundice, fever, digestive issues, joint pain, dark-colored urine and swelling of the belly.
- Today, the number one cause of hepatitis C is injected drug use. The prevalence of hepatitis C continues to rise as the rate of injected drug use rises in the United States.
- There are natural remedies that can help you to manage your hepatitis C symptoms, such as supplementing with zinc and vitamin D, plus taking probiotics and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes foods that help to cleanse the liver.