Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
Hepatitis C virus is carried in the blood of people infected with the virus. It is primarily spread through contact with infected blood, such as:
- Injecting illicit drugs with shared needles
- Receiving HCV-infected blood transfusions (before 1992) or blood clotting products (before 1987)
- Receiving an HCV-infected organ transplant
- Receiving long-term kidney dialysis treatment (dialysis machine can be tainted with HCV-infected blood)
- Sharing toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers or other personal hygiene items that have HCV-infected blood on them
- Being accidentally stuck by an HCV-infected needle (a concern for healthcare workers)
- Frequent contact with HCV-infected people (a concern for healthcare workers)
- Receiving a tattoo, body piercing, or acupuncture with unsterilized or improperly sterilized equipmentHepatitis C can also spread through:
- An HCV-infected mother to her baby at the time of birth
- Sexual contact with someone infected with HCV
- Sharing a straw [or inhalation tube] when inhaling drugs with someone infected by HCV
- Receiving a blood transfusion
HCV cannot spread through:
- The air
- Unbroken skin
- Casual social contact
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors include:
- Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
- Receiving blood clotting products before 1987
- Long-term kidney dialysis treatment
- Body piercing
- Injecting illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
- Having sex with partners who have hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted diseases
Eighty percent of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms. However, over time, the disease can cause serious liver damage.
Symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
- Darker colored urine
- Light or chalky colored stools
- Loose, light-colored stools
- Abdominal pain
- Aches and pains
- Joint pain
- Cigarette smokers may suddenly dislike the taste of cigarettes
Chronic hepatitis C infection may cause some of the above symptoms, as well as:
- Severe fatigue
- Loss of appetite
Serious complications of hepatitis C infection include:
- The possibility that the infection will become chronic, leading to cirrhosis (scarring) and progressive liver failure
- Increased risk of liver cancer
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The doctor will also want to discuss your risk factors for hepatitis C.
Tests may include:
Blood Tests–to look for hepatitis C antibodies or genetic material from the virus (The antibodies are proteins that your body has made to fight the hepatitis C virus.)
Liver Function Studies–to initially determine and follow how well your liver is functioning
Ultrasound of the Liver–to assess liver damage
Liver Biopsy–removal of a sample of liver tissue to be examined
Hepatitis C is treated with medications, including:
- Interferon, given by injection
- Ribavirin, given orally
- A combination of interferon and ribavirin
These medications can cause difficult side effects and have limited success rates. In unsuccessful cases chronic hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis (scarring) and serious liver damage. In rare cases a liver transplant may be needed.
To prevent becoming infected with hepatitis C:
- Do not inject illicit drugs, especially with shared needles. Seek help to stop using drugs.
- Do not have sex with partners who have sexually transmitted diseases.
- Practice safe sex (using latex condoms) or abstain from sex.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Avoid sharing personal hygiene products (toothbrushes, etc.).
- Avoid handling items that may be contaminated by HCV-infected blood.
- Donate your own blood before elective surgery to be used if you need a blood transfusion.
To prevent spreading hepatitis C to others if you are infected:
- Tell your dentist and physician before receiving check-ups or treatment.
- Get both a hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccination.
- Do not donate blood or organs for transplant.