Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation and damage. Inflammation is swelling that occurs when tissues of the body become injured or infected. Inflammation can damage organs. Viruses invade normal cells in your body. Many viruses cause infections that can be spread from person to person. The hepatitis C virus spreads through contact with an infected person’s blood.
Hepatitis C can cause acute or chronic infection.
Although no vaccine for hepatitis C is available, you can take steps to protect yourself from hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, talk with your doctor about treatment. Medicines can cure most cases of hepatitis C.
Acute hepatitis C
Chronic hepatitis C
Chronic hepatitis C is a long-lasting infection. Chronic hepatitis C occurs when your body isn’t able to fight off the virus. About 75 to 85 percent of people with acute hepatitis C will develop chronic hepatitis C. Early diagnosis and treatment of chronic hepatitis C can prevent liver damage. Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can cause chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.
Who is more likely to get hepatitis C?
People more likely to get hepatitis C are those who
- have injected drugs
- had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992
- have hemophilia and received clotting factor before 1987
- have been on kidney dialysis
- have been in contact with blood or infected needles at work
- have had tattoos or body piercings
- have worked or lived in a prison
- were born to a mother with hepatitis C
- are infected with HIV
- have had more than one sex partner in the last 6 months or have a history of sexually transmitted diseases
- are men who have had sex with men
Should I be screened for hepatitis C?
Doctors usually recommend one-time screening of all adults ages 18 to 79 for hepatitis C. Screening is testing for a disease in people who have no symptoms. Doctors use blood tests to screen for hepatitis C. Many people who have hepatitis C don’t have symptoms and don’t know they have hepatitis C. Screening tests can help doctors diagnose and treat hepatitis C before it causes serious health problems.
What are the complications of hepatitis C?
Cirrhosis is a condition in which the liver slowly breaks down and is unable to function normally. Scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue and partially blocks the flow of blood through the liver. In the early stages of cirrhosis, the liver continues to function. However, as cirrhosis gets worse, the liver begins to fail.
Also called end-stage liver disease, liver failure progresses over months, years, or even decades. With end-stage liver disease, the liver can no longer perform important functions or replace damaged cells.
Having chronic hepatitis C increases your chance of developing liver cancer. If chronic hepatitis C causes severe liver damage or cirrhosis before you receive hepatitis C treatment, you will have an increased chance of liver cancer even after treatment. Your doctor may suggest blood tests and an ultrasound or another type of imaging test to check for liver cancer. Finding cancer at an early stage improves the chance of curing the cancer.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Most people infected with hepatitis C have no symptoms. Some people with an acute hepatitis C infection may have symptoms within 1 to 3 months after they are exposed to the virus. These symptoms may include
- dark yellow urine
- feeling tired
- gray- or clay-colored stool
- joint pain
- loss of appetite
- pain in your abdomen
- yellowish eyes and skin, called jaundice
If you have chronic hepatitis C, you most likely will have no symptoms until complications develop, which could be decades after you were infected. For this reason, hepatitis c is important, even if you have no symptoms.
What causes hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus causes hepatitis C. The hepatitis C virus spreads through contact with an infected person’s blood. Contact can occur by
- sharing drug needles or other drug materials with an infected person
- getting an accidental stick with a needle that was used on an infected person
- being tattooed or pierced with tools or inks that were not kept sterile and free from all viruses and other microorganisms and were used on an infected person before they were used on you
- having contact with the blood or open sores of an infected person
- using an infected person’s razor, toothbrush, or nail clippers
- being born to a mother with hepatitis C
- having unprotected sex with an infected person
You can’t get hepatitis C from
- being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person
- drinking water or eating food
- hugging an infected person
- shaking hands or holding hands with an infected person
- sharing spoons, forks, and other eating utensils
- sitting next to an infected person
A baby can’t get hepatitis C from breast milk.
How do doctors diagnose hepatitis C?
Doctors diagnose hepatitis C based on your medical history, a physical exam, and blood tests. If you have hepatitis C, your doctor may perform additional tests to check your liver.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and whether you have any history of blood transfusions or injected drug use.
During a physical exam, your doctor will typically examine your body to check for signs of liver damage such as
- changes in skin color
- swelling in your lower legs, feet, or ankles
- tenderness or swelling in your abdomen
Your doctor may order one or more blood tests to diagnose hepatitis C. A healthcare professional will take a blood sample from you and send the sample to a lab.
Blood tests for hepatitis C include the following:
- Screening test for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. A screening blood test will show whether you have developed antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. A positive antibody test means you were exposed to the hepatitis C virus at some point. However, the virus may no longer be present in your blood if your body fought off the infection on its own or if you received treatment that cured the infection.
- Hepatitis C RNA test. If your antibody test is positive, your doctor will use a hepatitis C RNA test to detect RNA—a type of genetic material—from the hepatitis C virus. The hepatitis C RNA test can show whether you still have the hepatitis C virus and how much virus is in your blood. This information can help your doctor treat the infection. To see if you are responding to treatment, your doctor may order this test while you are undergoing treatment to find out if the amount of virus in your blood is changing.
- Genotype test. Your doctor can use this test to find out what strain, or form, of hepatitis C virus you have. At least six specific strains—called genotypes—of hepatitis C exist. Genotype 1 is the most common hepatitis C genotype in the United States.1 Your doctor will recommend treatment based on which hepatitis C genotype you have.
How can I prevent spreading hepatitis C to others?
If you have hepatitis C, follow the steps above to avoid spreading the infection. Tell your sex partner you have hepatitis C, and talk with your doctor about safe sex practices. In addition, you can protect others from disease by telling your doctor, dentist, and other health care providers that you have hepatitis C. Don’t donate blood or blood products, semen, organs, or tissue.
Is a hepatitis C vaccine available?
Researchers are still working on a vaccine for hepatitis C. If you have hepatitis C, talk with your doctor about vaccines for hepatitis A and hepatitis. These vaccines can protect you from hepatitis A and hepatitis B infections, which could further damage your liver.
What should I eat and drink if I have hepatitis C?
If you have hepatitis C, you should eat a balanced, healthy diet. Talk with your doctor about healthy eating. You should also avoid alcohol because it can cause more liver damage.