Hepatitis C is an infectious, often chronic (long-lasting) disease in which the liver becomes inflamed. Caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), it usually spreads in the following ways:
- Contact with infected blood
- Unprotected sex with an infected person (especially men having sex with men)
- Passed from mother to baby during pregnancy
- Sharing needles while using intravenous drugs
Because symptoms often don’t appear for years after a person becomes infected, the virus often goes undetected — and, as a result, untreated — while slowly damaging the liver. Of the roughly 4 million people in the U.S. who have hepatitis C, about 3 million of those people are unaware of it.
There are two types of hepatitis C:
- Acute – short-term infection, with symptoms lasting up to 6 months before your body is able to get rid of the virus
- Chronic – long-lasting infection, which happens when your body can’t get rid of the virus (most hepatitis C infections become chronic)
Without treatment, chronic hepatitis C can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening liver damage. In fact, chronic hepatitis C infection is the leading cause of both cirrhosis (severe liver disease) and liver cancer in the U.S.
Hepatitis C: what you should know
- It is not related to hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis D or hepatitis E. Each type of hepatitis is caused by a different virus
- Unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The best way to protect against hepatitis C is to avoid or limit behaviors that can expose you to HCV infection.
- Baby boomers — adults between the ages of 45 and 65 — comprise one of the biggest at-risk groups for undetected hepatitis C. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about one in 30 baby boomers is infected with hepatitis C, and most aren’t aware of it. The CDC urges all baby boomers to get tested for hepatitis C.
You won’t get hepatitis C from the following:
- Hugging or shaking hands with an infected person
- Being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person
- Sharing eating utensils with an infected person
- Breast milk
How can I get help for hepatitis C?
The longer chronic hepatitis C goes untreated, the more liver damage you’re likely to have. Early diagnosis and treatment give you the best chance to prevent the serious damage that can lead to liver cancer or liver failure, both of which are life-threatening.
If you’ve been exposed to hepatitis C — or think you may have been — talk to your doctor right away so you can be tested. You should also be tested if you fall into any of these high-risk categories:
- Your mother had hepatitis C at the time you were born
- You have contact with blood or infected needles at work
- You’ve had more than one sex partner in the last six months
- You are a man who has had sex with another man
- You have a history of sexually transmitted disease
- You are on kidney dialysis
- You are infected with HIV
- You’ve ever injected illegal drugs or shared needles
- You have tattoos or body piercings
- You work or live in a prison
- You had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992
- You have hemophilia and received clotting factor before 1987
- You are a baby boomer (an adult age 45 to 65)
In addition, see your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, which can be (but are not always) related to hepatitis C infection:
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
People with acute hepatitis C often have no symptoms. If they do, it’s usually within 6 to 12 weeks after exposure to HCV.