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Hepatitis C

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It affects more than 3 million people in the United States and is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplants. Hepatitis C can cause both acute and chronic liver disease. Acute infection is a short-term illness that happens within the first six months after exposure to the virus. Acute infection usually leads to chronic infection. Many infected persons do not have any symptoms during the acute phase. Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C infection can take years to appear so many people do not know they are infected. There is no vaccine to prevent infection with hepatitis C, but early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent serious complications.

How does it spread?

Hepatitis C is a virus that is spread by coming into contact with an infected person’s blood. There are several ways this can occur including:

  • sharing needles or other drug preparation equipment;
  • blood transfusions or solid organ transplant before 1992;
  • tattoos or piercings from an unregulated setting;
  • being born to a mother with hepatitis C;
  • unprotected sex with a person with hepatitis C; or
  • having a medical procedure done with improperly sterilized equipment.

Hepatitis C is not spread through casual contact. For example, it is not spread through coughing, sneezing, hugging or drinking out of the same glass.

What are the symptoms?

Hepatitis C symptoms may take decades to appear. However, people infected with hepatitis C can still infect others even if they have no symptoms. People who are infected with the virus and do become sick may experience:

  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • joint pain
  • abdominal discomfort
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • yellowing of skin and eyes

How can I prevent it from spreading?

If you think you may have been exposed to hepatitis C, get tested. This can prevent others from becoming infected.

  • Do not share needles/syringes or other drug preparation equipment. Hepatitis C is commonly spread through sharing of intravenous needles or syringes and drug preparation equipment.
  • Do not share personal care items such as toothbrushes, razors or nail clippers.
  • If getting tattooed, use a reputable licensed tattoo facility. Make sure that any tool that will pierce the skin is sterilized or disposable.
  • Use condoms during sex.
  • Healthcare workers should follow standard precautions, wear proper personal protection equipment and sterilize equipment using appropriate protocols.

Who should get tested?

You should be tested for hepatitis C if you:
  • are an adult born during 1945 through 1965;
  • currently inject drugs;
  • have ever injected drugs;
  • received clotting factor concentrate produced before 1987;
  • were ever on long-term hemodialysis;
  • have HIV;
  • previously received a blood transfusion or organ transplant; or
  • are a healthcare, emergency medical or public safety worker and had a needle stick, sharps exposure or mucosal exposure to HCV-infected blood.

How is hepatitis C treated?

Researchers have made significant advances in hepatitis C treatment. Patients who are treated now have higher cure rates, fewer side-effects and shortened treatment times. Specific treatment recommendations depend on the type of hepatitis C virus, how badly the liver is injured and other medical conditions. If you have been diagnosed with hepatitis C, discuss treatment options with your doctor.

Where can I get more information?