What is hepatitis c?

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C: Overview

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver caused by a virus. This virus spreads when blood or body fluids from an infected person enter another person's body. This can happen when people share needles, razor blades, or toothbrushes. It can also spread through sex.

The virus doesn't always cause symptoms. But you may feel tired. And you may have a headache, sore muscles, nausea, and pain in the upper right belly. Other symptoms include yellowish skin and dark urine. Home treatment can help ease symptoms. And your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine.

Long-term infection can lead to severe liver damage. So make sure to go to your follow-up appointments.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a virus that infects the liver. Most people get it by sharing needles or being exposed to infected blood. Over time, it can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer, or liver failure.

What happens when you have hepatitis C?

Some people who get hepatitis C have it for a short time (acute infection) and then get better.

But most people get long-term, or chronic, infection. This can lead to liver damage.

Long-term hepatitis C often causes tiny scars in your liver. If you have a lot of scars, it becomes hard for your liver to work well. Over time, some people have more serious problems such as cirrhosis or liver cancer.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

Most people who are infected with hepatitis C—even people who have been infected for a while—usually don't have symptoms.

If symptoms do develop, they may include:

  • Feeling very tired.
  • Joint pain.
  • Belly pain.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Sore muscles.
  • Dark urine.
  • Yellowish eyes and skin (jaundice). Jaundice usually appears only after other symptoms have started to go away.

Most people go on to develop chronic hepatitis C but still don't have symptoms. This makes it common for people to have hepatitis C for 15 years or longer before it is diagnosed.

How is hepatitis C treated?

Medicines may be given for short-term (acute) hepatitis C. They are also used to treat a long-term (chronic) infection. Treatment may also help prevent liver problems. These include cirrhosis and liver cancer.

How can you prevent hepatitis C?

There is no vaccine to prevent the disease. Anyone who has hepatitis C can spread the virus to someone else. You can take steps to make infection less likely.

  • Don't share needles to inject drugs.
  • Make sure all tools and supplies are sterilized if you get a tattoo or body piercing, or have acupuncture.
  • Don't share anything that might have infected blood on it. This may include a toothbrush, razor, or nail clippers.
  • Use latex condoms during sex if you have HIV. Also use latex condoms if you have multiple sex partners or a sexually transmitted infection.

How is hepatitis C diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks that you may have hepatitis C, he or she will:

  • Ask questions about your medical history.
  • Do a physical exam.
  • Check your liver enzymes to see if they are high. This may be the first sign that you have the virus.

Your doctor may order:

  • A hepatitis C virus test. This is a blood test that looks for antibodies against the hepatitis C virus. It shows whether you have been exposed to the virus.
  • A blood test that looks for the genetic material (RNA) of the hepatitis C virus. This test shows whether you are infected with the virus now.
  • A blood test to find out the kind of hepatitis C virus (genotype) you have. Knowing your genotype will help you and your doctor decide if and how you should be treated.

If you have a hepatitis C virus test, you may also get tested for HIV.

How are medicines used to treat hepatitis C?

Antiviral medicines are used to treat hepatitis C.

  • Most people with acute hepatitis C get treated with antiviral medicine if the infection doesn't clear up on its own. Treatment may also help prevent long-term (chronic) infection.
  • Antiviral medicines also are used to treat long-term hepatitis C. These medicines may cure hepatitis C and prevent the virus from damaging your liver.

Current treatments for hepatitis C are very good at permanently lowering the amount of virus in the blood, and they almost always work. But they may cost a lot.

How can you care for your baby when you have hepatitis C?

Follow your doctor's advice about getting your baby tested for hepatitis C. Breastfeed if you can. Make sure your baby gets all the recommended childhood vaccines. Avoid spreading the virus to others. Keep any cuts, scrapes, or blisters covered. Don't share nail clippers, razors, toothbrushes, or any items that may have blood on them.

How is hepatitis C spread?

Hepatitis C is spread by contact with an infected person's blood. In the United States, most people get it by sharing needles and other equipment used to inject or snort illegal drugs.

Less often, it's spread by:

  • Getting a tattoo or a piercing with a needle that wasn't cleaned properly.
  • Sharing personal items, such as razors, toothbrushes, towels, or nail clippers, with an infected person.
  • Having sex with someone who's infected.
  • Getting injured with a needle that has infected blood on it. This sometimes happens to health care workers.
  • Having had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992. (Since 1992, all donated blood and organs in the U.S. are screened for hepatitis C.)

If someone has hepatitis C during pregnancy, they might spread it to their baby before or during delivery.

It isn't spread through breast milk, sharing food or drink, or casual contact like hugging.

What is your risk for getting cirrhosis when you have hepatitis C?

Many people who are infected with the hepatitis C virus will develop long-term (chronic) infection. Some people who have chronic hepatitis C will go on to develop cirrhosis—severe liver damage and scarring—after a period of about 20 years or more.

Certain factors may affect how quickly problems such as cirrhosis or liver cancer develop.

The way cirrhosis develops depends on:

  • How much liver damage you had when you were diagnosed.
  • How long you've had the infection.
  • Your age when you were infected.
  • How much alcohol you drink.
  • Your gender.
  • If you are obese and/or have diabetes.
  • If you have HIV or another immune system disorder.

What causes hepatitis C infection?

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. It is spread by contact with an infected person's blood. The most common way to get hepatitis C is by sharing needles and other equipment used to inject illegal drugs. You can't get it from casual contact like hugging, kissing, or sharing food or drink.

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