What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver that is caused by a virus. Hepatitis C is 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. As the disease progresses, symptoms of liver damage may appear.

What are the forms of hepatitis C?

There are 2 forms of hepatitis C:

  • Acute: a short-term infection that occurs within 6 months after a person is exposed to the virus. However, about 75 to 85% 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 per year die from liver disease associated with hepatitis C.

Early symptoms of hepatitis C may be similar to those of flu. Infected people often do not have any symptoms. If symptoms do occur, it takes from 2 weeks to 6 months after exposure before they occur.

How common is hepatitis C?

About 3.2 million people in the U.S. have 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 U.S.

What causes hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is caused when blood from an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person. The infection is most often spread when an infected person shares needles or syringes that are used to inject intravenous (IV) drugs. Even people who have used IV drugs infrequently may be at risk for infection.

Patients who received donated blood or blood products or had organ transplants before 1992 are at higher risk for hepatitis C. Healthcare workers who accidentally stick themselves with needles used on infected patients are also at risk of getting hepatitis C.

Less common ways of spreading hepatitis C include:

  • 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, although the risk is low.
  • 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 also become infected, although this is rare.

Additionally, “baby boomers,” born in the United States between 1945 and 1965, are at increased risk of having hepatitis C. If you are part of this group you should be screened for hepatitis C even in the absence of the risk factors listed above.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

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).

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