What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that is caused by the hepatitis C virus. There are several types of hepatitis C viruses. Hepatitis C is one type of hepatitis.
Hepatitis is a redness and swelling (inflammation) of the liver that sometimes causes lasting damage. The liver isn’t able to work the way it should.
Hepatitis C can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic):
- Acute hepatitis C. When people first get hepatitis C, this a brief infection that lasts 6 months or less. Some people are able to fight the infection at this stage and become cured. But most people go on to develop a chronic infection where the virus remains in their body.
- Chronic hepatitis C. This is a long-lasting infection that happens when your body can’t get rid of the virus. It causes long-term liver damage.
It is rare to recover from hepatitis C infection, but some people are able to clear the virus from their body. Most people with hepatitis C have the virus for the rest of their life. Most people with hepatitis C have no or only mild symptoms, so they don't always know they are infected.
Talk with your healthcare provider about getting tested for hepatitis C. Experts recommend all people over age 18 get tested at least once in a lifetime. Testing more often is advised for people with risk factors.
What causes hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is caused by infection from the hepatitis C virus. Like other viruses, hepatitis C is passed from person to person. This happens when you have contact with an infected person’s blood.
You may get the virus if you:
- Share needles used for illegal drugs
- Share drug-snorting equipment
- Have unprotected sex with someone who has hepatitis C
- Get a tattoo with infected equipment
Babies may also get the disease if their mother has the hepatitis C virus.
Who is at risk for hepatitis C?
Anyone can get hepatitis C by having contact with the blood of someone who is infected with the virus.
But some people are at higher risk for the disease. They include:
- Children born to mothers who are infected with hepatitis C
- People who have jobs that involve contact with human blood, body fluids, or needles
- People who have a blood-clotting disorder, such as hemophilia, and received clotting factors before 1987
- People who need dialysis treatment for kidney failure
- People who had blood transfusions, blood products, or organ transplants before the early 1990s
- People who take IV (intravenous) drugs
- People who have unprotected heterosexual or homosexual sex
- People with HIV
- People in prison
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Many people with hepatitis C don’t know they have it. In most cases, people who are infected with hepatitis C may not show any symptoms for several years.
It is still possible to pass the virus to someone else if you have hepatitis C but do not have any symptoms.
Each person’s symptoms may vary. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Dark yellow urine
- Light-colored stools
- Muscle and joint pain
Hepatitis C symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider to be sure.
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will give you a physical exam and ask about your past health. They will also do a blood test to see if you have hepatitis C.
If your provider thinks you have long-term (chronic) hepatitis C, they may do other tests to see how well your liver is working. These tests may include:
- More blood tests
- Special ultrasound or other imaging test
- Liver biopsy. For this, the doctor takes a small tissue sample from your liver. The sample is checked under a microscope to see what type of liver disease you have and how severe it is.
How is hepatitis C treated?
Your healthcare provider will monitor you closely and discuss treatments with you. Hepatitis C is usually treated because it often becomes a long-term or chronic infection. Hepatitis C can be cured. Your treatment may include taking one or more medicines for several months. Your symptoms will be closely watched and managed as needed.
If severe liver damage takes place, you may need a liver transplant.
What are possible complications of hepatitis C?
Many people with hepatitis C develop chronic liver disease. You could need a liver transplant. Hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver transplants in the U.S.
Liver failure can lead to death.
The risk for liver cancer is higher in some people with hepatitis C.
What can I do to prevent hepatitis C?
There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C. But you can protect yourself and others from getting infected by:
- Making sure any tattoos or body piercings are done with sterile tools
- Not sharing needles and other drug materials
- Not sharing toothbrushes or razors
- Not touching another person’s blood unless you wear gloves
- Using condoms during sex
Key points about hepatitis C
- Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by infection from the hepatitis C virus.
- The virus spreads when you have contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluid.
- Anyone can get hepatitis C, but some people are at higher risk. Ask your healthcare provider about your level of risk and getting tested.
- You may not have any symptoms for years.
- The risk for liver cancer is higher in people with hepatitis C.
- Treatment may include taking one or more medicines for several months.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.