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Q: I am a 45-year-old woman and I've been diagnosed with hepatitis C. How could I have gotten it? Could years of drinking have done it? Is there a cure or just treatment? Is it possible I gave it to my boyfriend?

-- D.K., Sanford, Fla.

A: Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver. The most common cause of hepatitis is a viral infection.

There are five common hepatitis viruses: A, B, C, D and E. Hepatitis can also result from other viral infections, such as yellow fever and mono, and can be caused by many nonviral agents as well, especially alcohol and some drugs.

Many people with acute (short-term) viral hepatitis can recover within months, with or without treatment. In fact, most of the time medical treatment is unnecessary for acute hepatitis, although hospitalization is sometimes required.

However, if the acute hepatitis was caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), there is a greater likelihood (up to 80 percent) the illness will become chronic or long-term.

The "cause" of viral hepatitis C is infection, and the cause of that infection is transmission of an infective agent from an infected person ("host") to an uninfected person. Most transmission of a hepatitis-related virus is by blood. Hepatitis is most commonly transmitted by nonsterile needles shared by intravenous drug users.

Hospital and clinic workers can be infected by exposure to the blood of infected patients. Blood transfusions with infected blood are another cause.

Risk of transmission by sexual contact or from mother to fetus is quite small, so it's possible, but unlikely, that you infected your boyfriend, unless you've shared needles.

Many people with hepatitis, especially chronic hepatitis, have few if any symptoms. Symptoms of acute hepatitis are highly variable, from none to life-threatening. When symptoms do show up, they can begin with a general feeling of illness (malaise), fatigue and poor appetite; a low fever and abdominal discomfort may also be seen.

The best treatment for hepatitis is prevention. That means avoiding infectious and other agents toxic to the liver. A vaccine is available to prevent infection from hepatitis B, but not hepatitis C.

Otherwise, treatment depends on the type and severity of the infection. For acute hepatitis, bed rest is recommended as needed, and return to normal activity should be gradual. A type of Interferon and ribavirin may be recommended for chronic hepatitis.

Your years of drinking could certainly lead to liver damage, but it didn't "cause" your hepatitis C infection. Alcoholic liver disease is a separate liver disorder caused by excessive alcohol. It is common and preventable, and women are more vulnerable than men.

For reasons not readily understood, people with alcoholic liver disease often have hepatitis C infection as well, and the combination is often worse than either alone. I know it's hard to do, but I hope you've stopped drinking. Hepatitis and excessive alcohol consumption can be a deadly combination.

The only treatment for alcoholic liver disease is to stop drinking alcohol. When this is done, some of the damage may repair itself. A good diet, including supplemental vitamins and minerals, is helpful.

Write to Dr. Douma in care of Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill. 60611. His e-mail address is

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