Hepatitis C during Pregnancy – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Hepatitis C is a condition that affects the liver. Some children get infected with Hepatitis C through their mothers at birth. So, when you are pregnant, diagnosis of Hepatitis C becomes important. Let us look at some information that can help you know what Hepatitis C is and what its implications are during pregnancy.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis is a liver infection caused by a virus. It leads to inflammation of the liver. There are three main types of hepatitis: Hepatitis A, B or C. You can be infected by Hepatitis C when you are exposed to the body fluids or blood of a Hepatitis-infected person.

Pregnant? Should You Be Tested With Hepatitis C?

Pregnant women with a dormant Hepatitis C infection, in particular, might deliver a baby without being aware that they were infected. The transmission of the virus from mothers to infants is one of the largest contributors to childhood Hepatitis C infection. Therefore, during pregnancy, it is good to have a blood test done. An anti HCV test in pregnancy is used to determine whether you are infected with Hepatitis C or not.

Doctors usually test pregnant women whom they feel are at a risk of having Hepatitis C. Women who have used intravenous drugs or come in contact with contaminated needles are at risk and must be screened before getting pregnant and during pregnancy.

Symptoms Of Hepatitis C In Pregnancy

The symptoms of Hepatitis C are not very clear and do not show themselves for many years after the patient has been infected. People with the virus in their liver for more than 6 months are known as Hepatitis C carriers. Many of these carriers live for many years without major health problems.

Initially, when you are infected, you might feel extremely tired and unwell.

The only sure way to confirm whether or not you have Hepatitis C is to get a blood test done.

Sometimes, there are no symptoms at all. In other cases, there might be mild or unclear symptoms that can be confused as symptoms for something else. However, the virus can cause liver damage, silently. If not treated at the right time, it can ultimately lead to cirrhosis (a liver disease) or liver cancer.

You might have some of the following symptoms if you are affected with chronic hepatitis:

  • Tiredness
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • Pain over the location of the liver, which is at the top right hand side of your tummy
  • Poor concentration or memory
  • Some people get affected by jaundice

How Does Hepatitis C Spread During Pregnancy?

Women with risk factors for Hepatitis C must be screened during pregnancy. The question that bothers a woman with Hepatitis C is, can Hepatitis C be transmitted to baby? Some studies indicate that Hepatitis affects 0.6%–2.4% of all pregnancies with an overall mother-to-infant transmission rate from 8% to 15%. Another study states that the transmission rate from mother to infant still remains as low as 1–8 %.

Factors existing before, during, or after pregnancy lead to increased risk of Hepatitis C pregnancy transmission from the mother to the baby. Some of these factors include vaginal or perineal lacerations, a higher viral load during delivery, and HIV co-infection.

HIV co-infection is an important factor that increases the chances of a mother transmitting the virus to her child is if she is also infected with HIV. The rate of transmission for pregnant women with Hepatitis as well as HIV is around 17 to 25 percent. But the risk of transmission is between 0 to 18 percent if a mother is HIV negative and does not have a history of blood transfusions or intravenous drug use.

HCV infection also spreads from using intravenous drugs and tattoos where the needles and paints are not sterilized appropriately.

What Are The Causes Of Hepatitis C In Pregnant Women?

Following are the major causes for Hepatitis C transmission. Please note that these causes are not limited to pregnant women:

  • Dental or medical procedures using equipment which is not aptly sterilized
  • Blood transfusions from blood that is not screened can lead to a higher risk of spreading Hepatitis C. Legally, Hepatitis C screening for blood products is mandatory in India. However, it may not always be done effectively
  • Reusing syringes
  • Exposure to contaminated blood
  • Using contaminated needles similar to the ones that are used for body piercing or tattoos
  • Sharing accessories such as scissors, razors, toothbrushes, etc. with an infected individual
  • Having sexual relationships with an infected person

Note: Drug usage, and sharing spoons, needles and filters while injecting drugs, is also a common cause of Hepatitis C infection.

Diagnosis of Hepatitis C

Diagnosis of Hepatitis C is done through a blood test. The test is not one of the routine tests taken by all expecting women.

However, if there are risk factors, the doctor will recommend you to get a HCV test during pregnancy. If you are concerned about you being infected, you should consult your doctor for testing.

If you have Hepatitis C, you might not have any symptoms at all. Or, you might have symptoms like flu, fatigue, nausea, aching muscles, anxiety and depression, which can be mistaken for something else. A blood test is the only way to get a confirmed diagnosis.

Generally, there are two tests to determine whether you are infected with Hepatitis C. The first test is known as an “antibody” test or anti-HCV test. This test checks for antibodies of HCV in your body. Antibodies are particles that your body makes to fight off infections. A positive antibody result indicates that you have been exposed to the Hepatitis C virus, and have developed antibodies to fight off the virus. This test does not conclude that you have a chronic Hepatitis C infection.

If the antibody test is positive, then a second test called the Hepatitis C viral load test is performed to check if you still have the Hepatitis C virus in your body. A positive result in this test indicates that you have chronic Hepatitis C, and you might eventually have health problems from the virus.

Treatment For HCV While Pregnant

There are different strains of Hepatitis C, and the treatment varies depending on which one you have. It also depends on the viral load and whether the liver is affected or not.

If you are pregnant, you can’t take the usual medicines that are prescribed for treating Hepatitis C. So, if you’ve been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, your doctor might recommend that you wait until the baby is born before starting the treatment. Sometimes, you might be advised to wait because there are chances that your immune system might kill the virus within a few months, ruling away the need for treatment.

While you wait, it is advisable to reduce the harm to your liver by making lifestyle changes such as:

  • Stop or reduce consuming alcohol. Consuming alcohol can be harmful for all pregnant women
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly

For the treatment of Hepatitis C, medications called Pegylated interferon (PEG-INF) and ribavirin are used. Sometimes, another drug called boceprevir or telaprevir might be included with the combination of the two drugs. However, all these drugs are unsafe in pregnancy. Ribavirin can cause severe birth defects and sometimes even lead to the death of the baby.

Effect of HCV on Pregnancy

Research suggests that babies born to women with Hepatitis C might be premature, have low birth weight, and also face a risk of intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR). The mother might have liver-related issues or might encounter pregnancy-related difficulties.

An analysis conducted by the US Nationwide Inpatient Sample, Reddick et al, indicated an increased risk of gestational diabetes, preterm birth and caesarean delivery in women suffering from Hepatitis C during pregnancy.

If women infected with Hepatitis C want to try for a baby, it’s important for them to wait until the treatment is completed. Such women have the threat of birth defects in their baby. Therefore, during treatment, they would need effective birth control until the doctor advises that it is safe to try having a baby. Ribavirin might also affect sperms, so consult your doctor and take his advice. Treatments that include interferon therapy must also be discontinued during pregnancy because the effect of this therapy on the baby is still unknown.

Will Hepatitis C affect my baby?

Can baby get Hepatitis C from mother? Well, as discussed earlier, the chances of Hepatitis C transfer to baby that is in the uterus or during child birth is low. But the probability of the baby catching Hepatitis C increases if the mother has high levels of the virus or also has HIV. Although the chances of your baby getting infected are less, it is good to get the baby tested for it when she is one year old. Tests done before one year of age fail to show conclusive results.

Is there a treatment for babies born with Hepatitis C? If the baby is infected with Hepatitis C, a specialist who treats children for Hepatitis C should be consulted to provide ongoing care. The child might need ultrasound scans or related tests coupled with regular tests and check-ups. Medication is not given to all children affected with Hepatitis C. The treatment varies from child to child and depends on whatever is best suited for the infected child. Women with the infection might also need antiviral drugs after childbirth.

Babies whose mothers have Hepatitis C are born with antibodies to the virus in their blood. However, these antibodies disappear over time if the baby has not been infected.

How to protect baby from getting Hepatitis C

As discussed earlier, if you have Hepatitis C, there is a 1 in 20 chance that you will transmit it to the baby. The risk is higher if you are also affected by HIV and are not taking treatment. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent the spread of Hepatitis C to the baby.

What are the long term effects of Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection that can easily go undetected for a long time since it often shows minimal or no symptoms. While s

ometimes, the body might clear the Hepatitis C virus, it is also possible that it might remain in the liver. Hepatitis C carriers are people who have the virus within them for more than six months. There is a chance that some of them may develop cancer of the liver or liver cirrhosis. These complications usually occur after many years since being infected by the virus.

Can you breastfeed if you have Hepatitis C?

Breastfeeding is safe if you have Hepatitis C, unless you are HIV positive. There is a risk of transmission of the infection to the baby if your nipples are cracked or bleeding. If you are taking medication for Hepatitis C, you might be advised not to breastfeed your baby because the medication can be passed into the milk. It is always advisable to consult your doctor before you begin breastfeeding.

Complications associated with Hepatitis C

Pregnant women infected with Hepatitis C might be affected with liver-related complications and pregnancy-related complications.

In a study conducted in the Washington state, it was found that infants born to Hepatitis C-infected women were likelier to be low weight babies, who would need to be under assisted ventilation with intensive care facilities. In the same study, it was also found that these women had the risk of gestational diabetes, especially if they had excessive gestational weight gain.

Important facts about Hepatitis C and Pregnancy

Now that we have discussed in detail about Hepatitis C, let us reiterate some important facts with respect to Hepatitis C and pregnancy.

  • Most women go through the pregnancy phase between 20 and 40 years of age. Hepatitis C cases are also rising in women belonging to the same age group. Women who come in contact with contaminated needles must be tested for Hepatitis C both before and after getting pregnant
  • The transmission of the Hepatitis virus to the child is related to the levels of RNA in the mother’s blood
  • Women who are HIV positive and get infected with the Hepatitis C virus have a higher risk of transmitting the virus to their babies
  • There are no preventive methods that can minimise the transmission of Hepatitis C to the baby
  • During pregnancy, some medications must be discontinued. For example, interferon therapy for treating Hepatitis C must be stopped. It is also recommended that women should not become pregnant while they are undergoing interferon and ribavirin treatment. These medications increase the risk of birth defects. Avoid breastfeeding during this treatment

Advancements in medical technology and research are sure to change the paradigm of treating Hepatitis C, especially in pregnant women and children. It is always advisable to consult your doctor if you suspect that you are at risk of catching Hepatitis C or are infected by Hepatitis during pregnancy.