What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver that is caused by a virus and spread through contact with the blood of an infected person. Some people can have hepatitis C for years without feeling sick, or may just have minor symptoms.

If the infection is not treated, it can cause the liver to swell and become inflamed. Over time, this can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, and possibly liver failure. As the disease develops, symptoms of liver damage may appear.

What are the types of hepatitis C infection?

There are two types of hepatitis C infection:

  • Acute: a short-term infection that occurs within 6 months after a person is exposed to the virus. However, about 75 to 85 percent of people with the acute form go on to develop the chronic form.
  • Chronic: a long-term illness that can continue throughout a person’s life. It can lead to cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver and other serious problems, such as liver failure or cancer. About 15,000 people a year die from liver disease associated with hepatitis C.

How common is hepatitis C?

Between 2.7 million and 3.9 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. It is the most common reason for liver transplants in the United States.

What causes hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is caused when blood from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person. These are the most common methods of infection:

  • An infected person shares needles or syringes for injecting intravenous (IV) drugs. Even people who have used IV drugs infrequently may be at risk for infection.
  • Healthcare workers who accidentally stick themselves with needles used on infected patients are at risk of getting hepatitis C.
  • Patients who received donated blood or blood products or who had organ transplants before 1992 are at higher risk for hepatitis C.

Less common ways of spreading hepatitis C include the following:

  • Sexual contact with an infected person. Although the risk of getting hepatitis C through sexual intercourse is low, the risk increases for people who have several sex partners or those with HIV infections.
  • Sharing a razor, toothbrush or other personal item that may have come into contact with the blood of an infected person.
  • Becoming infected through body piercing or tattooing, if the facility does not use sterile equipment or does not follow infection control practices.

Babies born to mothers who have hepatitis C might become infected, although this is not common. In addition, “baby boomers” (people born in the United States between 1945 and 1965) are at increased risk of having hepatitis C and should be screened for it.

Hepatitis C cannot be spread by simple contact (hugging, kissing, etc.) or by coughing or sneezing.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

People who are infected with hepatitis C often do not have any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they may be similar to those of flu. Symptoms usually take from 2 weeks to 6 months after exposure to the virus before they occur.

Symptoms of acute hepatitis C may include:

  • Achiness in the joints or muscles
  • Mild fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Nausea (feeling sick to the stomach)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tenderness in the area of the liver

Symptoms of liver damage associated with chronic hepatitis may include jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes), itching, and slowed thinking.