What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a disease that causes inflammation (or swelling) of the liver. It is caused by the hepatitis C virus. If left untreated, hepatitis C can cause serious damage to the liver. Many people do not know they have hepatitis C until when symptoms appear, which can be many years.
Less than 2% of the general U.S. population has hepatitis C; however, around one in four people with HIV also has hepatitis C (called HIV-hepatitis C co-infection).
How can someone get hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with the blood of someone who has hepatitis C. You can get hepatitis C from sharing needles with someone who has the virus, or from getting a tattoo or piercing with unsterilized equipment.
It is also possible to get hepatitis C from having sex without a condom (unprotected sex) with someone who has hepatitis C. The risk of getting hepatitis C this way is higher if you already have HIV, another STD (sexually transmitted disease), or multiple sex partners. Less commonly, it is also possible to get hepatitis from sharing razors or toothbrushes with an infected person.
To protect yourself from hepatitis c, avoid having direct contact with anything that could have someone else’s blood on it. For instance, wear gloves if you have to touch another person’s blood, and don’t use other people’s personal items (such as razors) that could have blood on them. Never share needles with other people and make sure sterile equipment is used if you get piercings or tattoos. Another important way to protect yourself is to use a condom when you have sex. Click here to learn more about safe sex.
What are some symptoms associated with hepatitis C?
Most people do not experience any symptoms from hepatitis C when they are first infected. Some people (about 10%) may experience yellowing of their eyes or skin (called jaundice).
It is more common for symptoms to appear years later when chronic hepatitis C, if left untreated, has caused damage to the liver. This damage may include permanent scarring (known as cirrhosis), liver cancer, and liver failure. Possible symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain or swelling
- Yellowish eyes and skin
- Dark urine
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Bleeding that takes longer than usual to stop
- Spiderlike blood vessels on the skin
How do I know if I have hepatitis C?
Talk with your healthcare team if you are at higher risk or might have been exposed to hepatitis C. Your doctor will run blood tests to determine whether you have hepatitis C (or another type of hepatitis) and whether it may be chronic. Different tests will detect how much of the hepatitis C virus is in your body (viral load) and assess how well your liver is functioning. In some cases, the doctor may also perform a liver biopsy. In this procedure, a needle is used to remove a small piece (sample) of liver. The sample is examined under a microscope to determine the extent of liver damage.
Can hepatitis C be cured or treated?
There isn’t a cure for hepatitis c, but there are some treatments. The most common treatment for hepatitis C is medication to reduce the risk of liver damage by slowing or stopping the virus. The medications may be taken by mouth (pills) or given in a shot (injections). Treatment typically takes 24 to 48 weeks. Other treatments may be necessary depending on the extent of liver damage. Your health care team can help identify the treatment plan that is right for you.
Sources: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, CDC.gov