Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver. Over time, it can cause serious liver damage if it is not treated.
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Hepatitis C is caused by a virus (HCV). The virus can be spread:
- Through contact with the blood of an infected person
- Through IV drug use
- To a baby during birth, if the mother has the infection
The hepatitis C virus is not spread through food or water.
Factors that may increase your chance of hepatitis C include:
- Injecting illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
- Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992—this risk is low in the United States (current testing process prevents this today)
- Receiving blood clotting products before 1987 (current testing process prevents this today)
- Receiving an HCV-infected organ transplant
- Long-term kidney dialysis treatment
- Sharing toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, or other personal hygiene items that have HCV-infected blood on them
- Being accidentally stuck by an HCV-infected needle—a concern for healthcare workers
- Frequent contact with HCV-infected people—a concern for healthcare workers
- Body piercing
- Having sex with partners who have hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted diseases
Symptoms may not be present or be too minor to notice. People with symptoms may have any of the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin
- Darker colored urine
- Loose stools and light or chalky colored stools
- Abdominal pain
- Aches and pains
- Joint pain
- Sudden dislike for the taste of cigarettes in cigarette smokers
Long term (chronic) hepatitis C may also cause:
- Severe fatigue
- Loss of appetite
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and past health issues. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor may suspect hepatitis based on your risk factors. Blood tests will be done to confirm hepatitis by looking for:
- Signs of the virus
- Antibodies—signs that the immune system is fighting an infection; may not be present early in the infection
- Changes in liver function
Other tests may be done to rule out other liver conditions.
In some people, the infection may go away on its own. It is important to follow up with the doctor to make sure the infection has cleared.
If the infection does not pass, the goal of treatment is to:
Prevent further liver damage
- Stop drinking alcohol. Talk to your doctor if you have problems with alcohol. Your doctor can refer you to counseling or a treatment program.
- Quit smoking. There are several tools to help you quit smoking. Talk to your doctor about methods that are safe for you.
- Avoid certain medicine. For example, acetaminophen can be harmful to the liver. Talk to your doctor about any medicine or supplements you are taking.
- Cure the infection—antiviral medicine will help the body fight and clear the virus.
To prevent spreading hepatitis C to others:
- Let your dentist and doctors know you have hepatitis C before check-ups or treatment.
- Do not donate blood or organs for transplant.
If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you should get tested for hepatitis C infection.
To prevent a hepatitis C infection:
- Do not inject illegal drugs. If you do, do not share needles. Seek help to stop using drugs.
- Do not have sex with partners who have sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- Practice safe sex. Use latex condoms.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
Do not share personal items that might have blood on them, such as:
- Manicuring tools
- Pierced earrings
If you are having a planned surgery, ask if you may need a blood transfusion. You can donate your blood before the surgery. The blood used in surgery will be your own.
American Liver Foundation
Hepatitis Foundation International
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12/9/2013 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115157/Hepatitis-C: US Food & Drug Administration. FDA news release: FDA approves new treatment for hepatitis C virus. Food & Drug Administration website. Accessed October 8, 2015.
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Last reviewed September 2018 by Michael Woods, MD FAAP Last Updated: 7/19/2018