Hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, can occur as a result of viral infection or because of damage caused to the liver by substances such as alcohol.
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There are several different types of the disease affecting millions of people worldwide. While some pass without doing any serious damage, others can last for years and, in the most serious cases, cause fatal liver failure.
By far the most common type in Britain is hepatitis C. The NHS estimates that around 255,000 people in England have the condition but many do not realise because the symptoms can easily be mistaken for other illnesses and often aren't noticeable until after the liver has been damaged.
Heptatitis C is spread by bodily fluids such as blood, saliva, semen or vaginal fluid, but since the highest concentration of the virus is in the blood, exposure to infected blood is how it is usually transferred.
For this reason, those that inject drugs are at particularly high risk. Infection can, however, occur during unprotected sex.
Early signs include a raised temperature, tiredness, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and a loss of appetite. It is thought one in four people will successfully fight off the virus but for the remaining three out of our, hepatitis C can develop into a chronic, long-term illness.
By this time, more symptoms will likely be in evidence, including mood swings, problems with short-term memory and concentration, depression, joint and muscle pain, headaches, pain in the liver area and itchy skin. Anyone experiencing the above symptoms persistently should visit their GP to get tested.
If left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can result in scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), which can develop up to 20 years after infection. Heavy drinkers, those with type 2 diabetes and those who are also infected with HIV or another type of hepatitis are at greater risk of cirrhosis.
Since most cases of hepatitis C go untreated during the early or acute phase because of the lack or mistaken diagnosis of symptoms, many sufferers are forced to deal with chronic hepatitis. A combination of medication is usually prescribed lasting from 24 weeks to 48 weeks. However, the side effects can be severe and include anaemia, depression, anxiety, insomnia, hair loss, itchiness, nausea and loss of appetite. Three out of four sufferers report experiencing one or more of these side effects.
While there is no vaccine to protect against hepatitis C, it is possible to reduce your risk of infection.
It is particularly important that drug-users do not share needles and syringes but even sharing personal items such as razors or toothbrushes could put you at risk. Cuts and grazes should always be cleaned and covered and blood removed from surfaces.
Last but not least, always practice safe sex, especially if you are having sex with a new partner or frequently change your sexual partner.
If you are living with hepatitis C or are concerned that you are at risk, help, advice and support is available from the Hepatitis C Trust.