Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV). “Hepatitis” refers to an inflammation of the liver, and is most often caused by a virus. In the United Sates, the most common types of viral hepatitis include Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C. An estimated 3.2 million people in the United States have chronic HCV, but most are unaware of their infection.
Acute hepatitis is short term and occurs within the first 6 months after an individual is exposed to HCV. 15-25% of people will clear the virus without treatment; however, the majority (75%-85%) of people who become infected with HCV develop chronic or lifelong infection. Over time, chronic hepatitis can lead to serious liver problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer.
Signs and Symptoms
Many people with HCV do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected. Even without symptoms the virus can still be detected in the blood.
Symptoms may occur with acute infection, and can appear from 2 weeks to 6 months after exposure. Symptoms of chronic HCV can take up to 30 years to develop, although damage to the liver can silently occur during this time.
Symptoms for both acute and chronic HCV can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, grey-colored stools, joint pain, and jaundice.
Transmission (How it Spreads)
HCV is usually spread when blood from a person infected with HCV enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with HCV by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before widespread screening of the blood supply in 1992, HCV was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
There is little evidence that HCV is spread by getting tattoos in licensed, commercial facilities; however, when tattoos or body piercings are given in informal settings or with non-sterile equipment, transmission of HCV or other infectious diseases is possible.
HCV can be spread through sex, although scientists do not know how frequently this occurs. Having sex with multiple partners, a sexually transmitted disease or HIV, or rough sex appears to increase a person’s risk for HCV.
Testing and Treatment
A specific blood test needs to be completed to know if an individual has been infected with the virus. Don’t assume you are tested for HCV during routine lab tests or physical exams. Be sure to ask your provider to be tested if you do not know your status.
The CDC recommends that certain groups are tested for HCV including those who:
- Currently inject drugs
- Injected drugs in the past, even if it was just once or occurred many years ago
- Have an HIV infection
- Have abnormal liver tests or liver disease
- Received donated blood or organs before 1992
- Have been exposed to blood on the job through a needle stick or injury with a sharp object
- Are on hemodialysis
- Children born to mothers with HCV
Treatments for acute HCV include rest, adequate nutrition, fluids, and antiviral medication. People with chronic HCV should be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease. Antiviral medication can be used to treat some people with chronic HCV, although not everyone needs or can benefit from current medications. Medications have improved significantly over the last few years. For many people, treatment can be successful and results in the virus no longer being detected.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent HCV, but there are ways to reduce the risk of becoming infected with HCV:
- Do not share needles or other equipment to inject cosmetic substances, drugs or steroids.
- Do not use personal items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s blood, such as razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, or glucose monitors.
- Do not get tattoos or body piercings from an unlicensed facility or in an informal setting.