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The first treatment for hepatitis C, a liver infection, came in the early 1990s. But back then, the cure rate was 6 percent and the harsh side effects often included flu-like symptoms.

Today’s treatments are up to 95 percent effective in clearing the hepatitis C virus. The therapy consists of daily pills taken for 8-12 weeks and causes few side effects.

Treatment once required a specialist, but can now be done by your family doctor.

The hepatitis C virus can cause inflammation and irritation of your liver, an organ essential for digesting food and getting rid of toxic substances. More than half of people with hepatitis C are unaware they have the virus, since they have no symptoms until the virus has taken a nasty, often irreversible, toll.

About 75-85 percent of people infected with hepatitis C will develop a chronic infection. If left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can cause a whole list of serious and potentially life-threatening health problems including the failure of your kidneys or liver, or permanent scarring. You can develop autoimmune diseases, or become more prone to life-threatening infections of the abdomen or bleeding in the esophagus or stomach.

The hepatitis C virus is usually spread through blood from an infected person. Today, most people become infected by sharing needles or other equipment to inject illegal drugs. Before widespread screening of the blood supply for the Hepatitis C virus began in 1992, the virus was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants, but screening virtually eliminated this source of infection.

Testing is typically done on people who are at higher risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults born between 1945 and 1965 get tested once, even if they have no risk factors. Hepatitis C testing is recommended for those who:

  • Have ever injected illegal drugs.
  • Have certain medical conditions.
  • Received a transfusion of blood, blood components or an organ transplant before July 1992.
  • Have a known exposure to the virus.

These groups tend to have higher rates of this infection when compared with the rest of the population. Avoiding risky behaviors, such as drug use, is one way to lower your risk. Getting your hepatitis A and B vaccines is another option, since they commonly occur together with hepatitis C.

Your healthcare provider can use a series of lab tests to detect the hepatitis C virus. The first screening test looks at whether your body has developed antibodies to attack the virus. If your body has produced antibodies, then your healthcare provider can order additional lab tests to confirm the presence of the virus. Other tests determine the specific genetic makeup of the hepatitis C virus. Medications are then tailored to you and your specific virus type.

While managing a hepatitis C infection can be complex, the good news is that, with treatment, hepatitis C can be cured. A number of clinics in Billings, including RiverStone Health, have healthcare providers experienced in screening, testing and treating hepatitis C. Ask your healthcare provider if you have been screened for the virus. If not, consider doing so.

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Dr. Justin Watkins, a physician with the Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247.3306.

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