Hepatitis C is a viral disease that primarily causes inflammation of the liver, but the effects can be felt throughout the body. Click here for interactive infographic
The Effects of Hepatitis C on the Body
Hepatitis C is caused by a virus that is passed through contact with the blood of an infected person. The infection leads to inflammation of the liver.
The liver processes blood and filter toxins so they don’t cause damage to your body. The liver also produces bile, which helps you to digest food and stores glucose and vitamins. Inflammation makes it difficult for the liver to perform these vital functions. In time, the hepatitis C infection can affect the entire body.
Early symptoms, including yellowing skin and fatigue, may be mild and easily dismissed. Chronic infection can cause scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). As the disease progresses, symptoms such as skin problems, blood disorders, and fever may appear.
In the long term, hepatitis C can lead to severe liver damage, liver cancer, and liver failure. Early treatment can help delay or prevent serious damage.
A healthy liver performs many functions that are crucial to your health. The liver is responsible for producing bile, a substance needed to break down fats. The body stores bile in the gallbladder, then sends it to the beginning section of the small intestine (duodenum). Bile is then combined with stomach acids and digestive fluids from the pancreas, which help the intestines absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.
Hepatitis C can severely hinder the liver’s ability to produce bile. Inflammation of the gallbladder can make it painful to digest fatty foods. Therefore, people with hepatitis C may feel some pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen. This may be due to a build-up of fluid in the stomach (ascites). This occurs when the damaged liver doesn’t produce enough albumin, a substance that regulates the amount of fluid in cells.
Other digestive symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Stool may become pale or clay-colored, and urine may darken.
Central Nervous System
When the liver doesn’t filter toxins from the blood, they can damage the central nervous system (hepatic encephalopathy). This can lead to a variety of symptoms, including sweet or musty breath, weakening of small motor skills, and sleep disturbances. Dry eyes and mouth are sometimes associated with hepatitis C.
A build-up of toxins in the brain can cause confusion, forgetfulness, poor concentration, and personality changes. Advanced symptoms include abnormal shaking, agitation, disorientation, and slurred speech. Severe cases may cause coma.
The liver filters toxins out of your bloodstream. It also produces proteins needed for healthy blood and helps to regulate blood clotting. A poorly functioning liver can create blood flow problems and increase pressure in the vein that leads to the liver (portal vein). This can cause portal hypertension, which may force blood to find an alternate vein. The vein can burst if it’s too small, causing serious internal bleeding (variceal bleeding).
A poorly functioning liver is unable to properly extract iron from the blood and store it for later use. This can result in anemia.
A healthy liver also helps convert sugars into glucose and store it for energy. Too much sugar in the bloodstream can lead to insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.
Blood tests can reveal the presence of hepatitis C antibodies in the bloodstream. If you have antibodies, it means you’ve been exposed to the virus. In most cases, a second blood test is used to confirm a hepatitis C diagnosis.
Skin, Hair, and Nails (Integumentary System)
A protein molecule called hemoglobin is found in red blood cells. Hemoglobin transports oxygen and iron to cells throughout the body. Iron is crucial in sustaining cells that make up healthy skin, fingernails, toenails, and hair.
Bilirubin is another important substance in hemoglobin. When the liver can’t do its job, bilirubin can build up and cause your skin and the whites of your eyes to turn yellow (jaundice).
Endocrine and Immune Systems
The endocrine system regulates hormones. As part of the endocrine system, the thyroid gland delivers hormones into the bloodstream. Sometimes hepatitis C can cause the immune system to mistakenly attack or damage thyroid tissue. This can cause an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), which can lead to sleep disorders and weight loss. Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can make you feel sluggish. According to The Hepatitis Trust, this is more common in women than in men.
Many people infected with hepatitis C have no symptoms, especially in the earliest stages. Some report general fatigue, fever, or non-specific aches and pains.