Hepatitis C – What You Need to Know
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C virus infection is the most common chronic
bloodborne infection in the United States; approximately 3.2 million
persons are chronically infected. It is the leading cause of cirrhosis
and liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in
the United States. Approximately 8,000–10,000 people die every year from
hepatitis C related liver disease.
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection
with the hepatitis C virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness
lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Hepatitis C is
usually spread when blood from a person infected with the hepatitis C
virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Hepatitis C can be
either “acute” or “chronic.”
Types of hepatitis C
Acute hepatitis C virus infection is a
short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after
someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute
infection leads to chronic infection.
Chronic hepatitis C virus infection is a long-term illness
that occurs when the hepatitis C virus remains in a person’s body.
Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious
liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver
cancer or death.
Contact and Spread
Hepatitis C is spread when blood from a person
infected with the hepatitis C virus enters the body of someone who is
not infected. Today, most people become infected with the hepatitis C
virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before
1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United
States, Hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions
and organ transplants.
People can become infected with the hepatitis C virus
during such activities as:
- Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to
- Needlestick injuries in health care settings
- Being born to a mother who has hepatitis C
Less commonly, a person can also get hepatitis C virus
- Sharing personal care items that may have come in
contact with another person’s blood, such as razors or toothbrushes
- Having sexual contact with a person infected with
the hepatitis C virus
Hepatitis C virus is not spread by sharing
eating utensils, breastfeeding, hugging, kissing, holding hands,
coughing, or sneezing. It is also not spread through food or
water. Hepatitis C virus has not been shown to be transmitted by
mosquitoes or other insects.
If symptoms occur, the average time is 6–7 weeks after
exposure, but this can range from 2 weeks to 6 months. However, many
people infected with the hepatitis C virus do not develop symptoms. Even
if a person with hepatitis C has no symptoms, he or she can still spread
the virus to others.
Symptoms of acute hepatitis C, if they appear, can
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored bowel movements
- Joint pain
- Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes)
Symptoms of chronic hepatitis C:
Most people with chronic hepatitis C do not
have any symptoms. However, if a person has been infected for many
years, his or her liver may be damaged. In many cases, there are no
symptoms of the disease until liver problems have developed.
Diagnosis and Testing
Since many people with hepatitis C do not have
symptoms, the disease is often detected during routine blood tests to
measure liver function and liver enzyme (protein produced by the liver)
levels. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for hepatitis C if any
of the following are true:
- You are a current or former injection drug user,
even if you injected only one time or many years ago.
- You were treated for a blood clotting problem
- You received a blood transfusion or organ
transplant before July 1992.
- You are on long-term hemodialysis treatment.
- You have abnormal liver tests or liver disease.
- You work in health care or public safety and were
exposed to blood through a needlestick or other sharp object injury.
- You are infected with HIV.
Acute hepatitis C
There is no medication available to treat acute
hepatitis C infection. Doctors usually recommend rest, adequate
nutrition, and fluids.
Chronic hepatitis C
Each person should discuss treatment options with a
doctor who specializes in treating hepatitis. People with chronic
hepatitis C should be monitored regularly for signs of liver disease and
evaluated for treatment. The treatment most often used for hepatitis C
is a combination of two medicines, interferon and ribavirin. However,
not every person with chronic hepatitis C needs or will benefit from
treatment. In addition, the drugs may cause serious side effects in some
In May 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved 2 drugs for
chronic hepatitis C. The first one is boceprevir and the other is
telaprevir (Incivek). Both drugs block an enzyme that helps the virus
reproduce. The drugs are intended to improve on standard treatments
using the injected drug pegylated interferon alpha and the pill
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to
prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the
- Don’t share needles or syringes.
- Practice “safer” sex. Hepatitis C can be spread
through sexual contact but the risk of transmission from sexual
contact is believed to be low. The risk increases for those who have
multiple sex partners, have a sexually transmitted disease, engage
in rough sex, or are infected with HIV.
- Don’t share razors, toothbrushes or nail
- If you ever tested positive for the hepatitis C
virus (or hepatitis B virus), experts recommend never donating
blood, organs, or semen because this can spread the infection to the
- If you are getting a tattoo or body piercing,
make certain that the artist or piercer sterilizes needles and
equipment, uses disposable gloves, and washes hands properly.
|Transmission of hepatitis C (and other infectious
diseases) is possible when poor infection-control practices
are used during tattooing or piercing. Since tattoo
instruments come in contact with blood and bodily fluids,
infection is possible if instruments are used on more than
one person without being sterilized or without proper
hygiene. Licensed, commercial tattooing facilities are not
known to spread hepatitis C, but unregulated tattooing and
piercing, as found in prisons and other informal settings,
does increase the risk of transmission.
For more information regarding hepatitis C:
From the Palm Beach County Health Dept.
Epidemiology & Disease Control.