Women can potentially pass the infection to a baby during childbirth. As a result, hepatitis C infections are especially important to detect in the female population.
Women with hepatitis C may also face different issues than men. This article will describe some of these key differences, as well as treatment options for women.
Hepatitis C in women
We explore some of the issues that affect females with hepatitis C:
Symptoms of hepatitis C can include fatigue and nausea.
Hepatitis C is a virus that people can acquire through contact with infected blood. A person can get the virus from sharing needles with a person who has hepatitis C.
In some cases, they get the virus during condomless sex if they come into contact with blood, including menstrual blood.
However, the incidence of transmission from sexual activity is lower than that of sharing needles, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
One of the main differences between transmission in males and females is that females can transmit the hepatitis C virus to a baby during childbirth.
According to ACOG, about 4 percent of women with hepatitis C pass it on during childbirth. The likelihood of this increases if the woman also has HIV or has high levels of the hepatitis C virus in the blood.
Prior to 1992, the United States’ blood supply was not regulated to detect hepatitis C. As a result, an estimated 250,000 women in the U.S. who received blood transfusions during cesarean deliveries may have the hepatitis C virus, according to the Hepatitis C Support Project.
Anyone who underwent a blood transfusion before 1992 should ask their doctor about hepatitis C testing.
Women cannot spread hepatitis C to a baby through breastfeeding or to another person through contact such as hugging.
When a person first gets the hepatitis C virus, they experience an acute infection. The acute infection can last from weeks to months and may cause symptoms that range in severity.
Some people “clear” the virus from their system and do not have further hepatitis C signs. Women are more likely to clear the hepatitis C virus, report the Hepatitis C Support Project.
While doctors are not sure why this is the case, it may be due to the higher levels of estrogen in females.
Severe hepatitis C side effects, such as cirrhosis or liver cancer, tend to progress more slowly in women compared with men, according to the Hepatitis C Support Project.
Disease progression may also depend on factors such as when a woman finds out that she has hepatitis C and whether she has co-infections such as HIV.
Hepatitis C symptoms in women
Hepatitis C rarely shows symptoms until it is more advanced. Often, the person may not know they have hepatitis C until they have a blood test for another condition and discover that their liver enzymes are higher than normal.
However, some symptoms of hepatitis C can include:
- muscle weakness
- stomach pain
- jaundice, or yellowing of the skin or eyes
These symptoms are nonspecific, meaning that many different underlying causes may lead to them. This makes hepatitis C more difficult to diagnose.
Doctors diagnose hepatitis C using blood tests. They may first test for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus, which can indicate whether a person has ever had the virus, even if they have since cleared it.
A doctor will also test for active signs of the virus. They may measure a person’s viral load, or how much of the virus is present in a person’s body.
If a woman tests positive for hepatitis C and has a baby, the doctor will usually recommend testing the baby for the virus when they are at least 18 months old. Testing before this age does not always provide accurate results.
No cure exists for hepatitis C, but some medications can help many people clear the virus.
Examples of these medications include sofosbuvir or velpatasvir (Epclusa) and ledipasvir or sofosbuvir (Harvoni).
However, some types of hepatitis C, such as those in advanced stages or of a specific genotype, do not respond to these medications and may cause liver damage.
The liver is the body’s main organ for clearing substances, such as toxins in alcohol or medications that a person takes. The liver breaks down the substances into smaller parts so that the body can eliminate them.
Therefore, doctors will recommend that anyone with liver damage avoid using alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. They also may review a person’s medications, including vitamins and supplements.
Can hepatitis C be prevented?
One way to avoid contracting hepatitis C is to never share needles.
There are vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, but there is no vaccine currently in existence for hepatitis C.
Therefore, a person should engage in other preventive methods, such as:
- not sharing needles or other drug-related equipment, including glucose monitors, with others
- asking about sterilization techniques and practices when getting a tattoo or body piercing
- following safety precautions such as disposing of all sharp objects properly, especially in healthcare centers
- using barrier protection to prevent blood-to-blood transmission during sex
- refraining from sharing personal care items that come into contact with blood, such as razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, and earrings
- cleaning all blood spills carefully with a mixture of bleach and water, as even dried blood that contains the hepatitis C virus could infect another person
Women are less likely to experience life-threatening complications of hepatitis C, but they can still develop liver-related complications. They can also pass the virus to a baby during childbirth.
Prevention and treatment of hepatitis C are vital. If a woman has risk factors for the virus, she should consider talking to her doctor about testing.