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Hepatitis C

QUICK FACTS

What is it?

  • Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects the liver and is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person.
  • Blood tests can determine the presence of hepatitis C.
  • Medication is available to treat hepatitis C.
  • Avoid direct contact with blood from a person infected with hepatitis C.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects the liver and ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C can either be "acute" or "chronic." Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness that occurs in the first six months after someone is exposed to the virus. In most cases, acute infection leads to chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis C is a long-term illness that occurs when the virus remains in a person's body. Hepatitis C can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer. Out of 100 people who become infected with hepatitis C, about 75 to 85 of them will develop the chronic infection. There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.

How common is hepatitis C?

More than 3 million people in the United States are living with chronic hepatitis C, and most do not feel ill or know they are infected. There are approximately 17,000 new hepatitis C cases each year in the United States, many of which go unreported.

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is transmitted through direct contact with blood from an infected person. The virus is most commonly transmitted through sharing of needles and syringes by injection drug users. Healthcare providers are at risk through needle-stick injuries. Babies born to mothers with hepatitis C are also at risk.

Less commonly, the hepatitis C virus is transmitted through sexual contact with an infected partner. The risk of transmission increases for those who have multiple sex partners, have a sexually transmitted disease (STD), engage in rough sex, or are infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Always use a condom or other latex barrier (like a dental dam) when you have sex to reduce risk of infection.

Very rarely, hepatitis C is spread by sharing household objects such as razors and toothbrushes that have come in contact with another person's blood. The degree of risk involved with getting a tattoo or piercing is less understood. No studies have shown hepatitis C to be spread through licensed, commercial tattoo facilities, however, transmission of hepatitis C is possible when poor infection-control practices are used. Hepatitis C is not spread through sharing cups and utensils, or through hugging, kissing, shaking hands, coughing, sneezing, or breastfeeding. It is also not spread through food or water.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

What are the symptoms of acute hepatitis C?

Out of 100 people with acute hepatitis C, about 70 to 80 of them have no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they show up from six to seven weeks after exposure on average, or any time between two weeks and six months later. Symptoms might include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark urine
  • Joint pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Fatigue (feeling tired all the time)

What are the symptoms of chronic hepatitis C?

Most people with chronic hepatitis C do not have symptoms and do not look or feel sick. Even without symptoms, the liver may be damaged. People with chronic hepatitis C are at risk for serious liver diseases such as cancer, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), or liver failure, all of which can be fatal (but may not show signs for years). Diseases caused by chronic hepatitis C are the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.

What are the risk factors for hepatitis C?

A risk factor is the chance that something will harm or otherwise affect a person's health.

Risk factors for hepatitis C include:

  • Sharing syringes, needles, or other equipment with someone who is infected.
  • Being a recipient of donated blood, blood products, or organs from someone infected with hepatitis C, most likely before 1992 (prior to blood screening in the United States).
  • Working in the health field and being around needles.
  • Receiving a body piercing or tattoo with non-sterile instruments.
  • Receiving hemodialysis or spending many years on dialysis for kidney failure.
  • Testing positive for HIV.
  • Having a mother who was infected with hepatitis C prior to your birth.

Less common risk factors include:

  • Sharing objects that might contain blood, such as razors and toothbrushes.
  • Having sexual contact with a person who is infected with hepatitis C.

Are there tests for hepatitis C?

There are several blood tests available for hepatitis C, and they can be done as a single test or as a combination of tests.

If you fall under any of the following categories, you should be tested for hepatitis C:

  • Being a baby boomer (born 1946-1964).
  • Sharing syringes, needles, or other equipment with someone who is infected.
  • Being a recipient of donated blood, blood products, or organs from someone infected with hepatitis C, most likely before 1992 (prior to blood screening in the United States).
  • Working in the health field and being around needles.
  • Receiving a body piercing or tattoo with non-sterile instruments.
  • Receiving hemodialysis or spending many years on dialysis for kidney failure.
  • Testing positive for HIV.
  • Having a mother who was infected with the hepatitis C virus prior to your birth.

How is hepatitis C treated?

What is the treatment for acute hepatitis C?

Acute hepatitis C is typically an infection of short duration and is treatable. Acute infection can clear on its own without treatment in about 25 of every 100 people. If treatment is needed, acute hepatitis C is treated with the same medications used to treat chronic hepatitis C. Treatment does reduce the risk that acute hepatitis C will become a chronic infection, however the optimal treatment and when it should be started remains uncertain. Healthcare providers often recommend getting rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating a healthy diet.

What is the treatment for chronic hepatitis C?

Several medications are available to treat chronic hepatitis C, including newer treatments that have been found to be more effective and have fewer side effects than previous treatment options. The latest treatment options for hepatitis C are antiviral medications. Most of the time, antiviral medication treatments involve daily medication for 12 weeks and depending on the specific medications being used, these have minimal side effects. Talking with your provider about treatment options is important. The costs of these treatment options vary but may be quite high, so all of those in need of treatment may not be able to afford or access it. Many pharmaceutical companies have programs that offer medication assistance and support. Talk to your healthcare provider about possible options.

At present, there is no vaccine available for hepatitis C. A person with hepatitis C should avoid alcohol and should check with his or her healthcare provider before taking any supplements or over-the-counter medications (as some of these products can damage the liver).

I was treated for hepatitis C. When can I have sex again?

After a person has been treated for hepatitis C, there is no waiting period to have sex again. Heterosexual and homosexual persons, especially those with concurrent HIV infection, a new partner, or with more than one partner, should protect themselves and their partners against transmission of the hepatitis C virus by using a condom, even if you have been treated for hepatitis C.

I was treated for hepatitis C. Can I get it again?

It is possible to become re-infected with hepatitis C if exposed to high-risk situations such as injection drug use. However, with a proper course of treatment under the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider, hepatitis C can be "cured." This means that the virus is not detected in the blood when measured with a blood test three months after treatment has been completed. This is also referred to as a sustained virologic response to antiviral medications.

What happens if I don't get treated?

For about 15 to 25 of every 100 people who get hepatitis C, the virus will clear on its own without treatment and they will not develop chronic infection. The reason for this is currently unknown. For others, lack of treatment could result in liver damage, liver cancer, or, in rare cases, death.

What are the implications of hepatitis C on pregnancy?

If a pregnant woman has risk factors for hepatitis C infection, she should speak to her doctor about getting tested. Healthcare providers usually only test women who are at risk, particularly women who have ever injected drugs. Women with hepatitis C may need antiviral drugs after the baby is born. The baby will also need to be tested for hepatitis C. There is no need for a cesarean birth. Women with hepatitis C can deliver vaginally. It is estimated that out of every 100 women with hepatitis C, 5 will pass the infection to their baby. The risk is higher in a woman who has both HIV and hepatitis C and is not being treated. To date, there is no way to prevent the spread of hepatitis C to the baby.

The hepatitis C virus has not been shown to be transmitted through breast milk, although hepatitis C-positive mothers should consider abstaining from breastfeeding if their nipples are cracked or bleeding.

 

Did You Know?

Besides abstaining from all forms of sex, condoms are the best way to protect against STDs.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MALE CONDOMS

Content created by Office of Population Affairs
Content last reviewed on April 10, 2018