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The facts about hepatitis C

Learn the causes of this disease, how it's treated and what you can do to avoid it.

Hepatitis C is a contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks the liver. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 2.4 million people in the U.S. have it and many of them are baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965. Although the disease is sometimes mild, lasting a few weeks, it is often quite serious and even life-threatening. The CDC reports hepatitis C contributed to at least 15,700 deaths in the U.S in 2018.  

Causes

You cannot catch hepatitis C from casual encounters such as shaking hands with an infected person. Rather, the virus is usually spread through contact with infected blood. According to CDC, high-risk groups include:

  • People who received blood-clotting products before 1987.
  • People who had blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992. (Many of the baby boomers who are infected may have gotten hepatitis C from infected blood products before widespread screening and protection of the blood supply began.)
  • People born to an infected mother.
  • Individuals who have had many years of dialysis for kidney failure.
  • Healthcare professionals exposed to infected blood (via accidental needle sticks in the hospital, for example).
  • People who have been tattooed or pierced with nonsterile tools.
  • People who share needles or syringes.
  • Individuals with HIV.

Sharing toothbrushes or razors with an infected person may pose a small risk of infection. There is also a slight risk for sexual transmission of hepatitis C.

Signs and symptoms

Fatigue, fever, joint pain, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, or abdominal pain generally occur within 2 to 12 weeks of infection. However, most infected people don't have early symptoms. According to CDC, it could be 10 to 20 years before an infected person develops cirrhosis.

Once hepatitis C damages the liver, symptoms can include:

  • Jaundice (yellowed skin and eyes).
  • Dark urine.
  • Pale-colored stools.

Without treatment, the virus can cause cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver failure, liver cancer or death.

Diagnosis and treatment

The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is via a blood test.

The CDC says everyone 18 and older should be tested at least once, and all women should be tested during each pregnancy. Children born to an infected mother also should be tested. The CDC recommends regular testing for people receiving maintenance hemodialysis and for people who inject and share needles or other drug preparation equipment.

Depending on a person's specific hepatitis C diagnosis and the amount of liver damage, a doctor might either recommend starting treatment right away or waiting and monitoring the disease.

There are a number of antiviral medicines available to treat hepatitis C. These medicines attack the virus and can cure the infection in most cases. Most of these drugs can interact with other medicines, so people should not take other medications or supplements without a doctor's OK.

Preventing hepatitis C

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, and it's possible to get the virus more than once. To avoid exposure:

  • Never borrow or lend personal grooming tools that could carry even a small amount of blood. That includes toothbrushes, razors and nail clippers.
  • Think twice about getting tattooed or pierced, which, if done without adherence to good health practices, could expose you to infected blood.
  • Don't use injected drugs; if you use drugs, get treatment.
  • Never share intravenous drug equipment, including needles and syringes.

If you have hepatitis C, protect others. Follow the measures above, and do not donate blood, semen, organs or other tissue.

Most people infected with hepatitis C don't know they have it.

Reviewed 7/6/2021

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