Millions of Americans are living with hepatitis C. Many don’t know it because the disease often has no symptoms. But left untreated, hepatitis C can cause serious liver damage and even liver cancer. The good news is treatments can cure hepatitis C.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. The liver is a vital organ that processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections.
When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its function can be affected. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis.
What causes hepatitis?
Although all types of viral hepatitis can cause similar symptoms, they are spread in different ways, have different treatments, and some—like hepatitis C—are more serious than others.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. When someone is first infected with the hepatitis C virus, they can have a very mild illness with few or no symptoms—or a serious condition requiring hospitalization.
For reasons that are not known, less than half of people who get hepatitis C are able to clear, or get rid of, the virus without treatment in the first 6 months after infection.
Most people who get infected will develop a chronic, or lifelong, infection. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious health problems including liver disease, liver failure, liver cancer, and even death.
How is hepatitis C spread?
The hepatitis C virus is usually spread when someone comes into contact with blood from an infected person. This can happen through:
Sharing drug-injection equipment.
Today, most people become infected with hepatitis C by sharing needles, syringes, or any other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs.
Approximately 6 percent of infants born to infected mothers will get hepatitis C.
Although uncommon, people can become infected when healthcare professionals do not follow the proper steps needed to prevent the spread of bloodborne infections.
Unregulated tattoos or body piercings.
Hepatitis C can spread when getting tattoos or body piercings in unlicensed facilities, informal settings, or with non-sterile instruments.
Sharing personal items.
People can get infected from sharing glucose monitors, razors, nail clippers, toothbrushes, and other items that may have come into contact with infected blood, even in amounts too small to see.
Blood transfusions and organ transplants.
Before widespread screening of the blood supply in 1992, hepatitis C was also spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
What are hepatitis C symptoms?
Many people with hepatitis C do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected. If symptoms occur, they can include:
- Yellow skin or eyes
- Not wanting to eat
- Upset stomach
- Throwing up
- Stomach pain
- Dark urine
- Light-colored stool
- Joint pain
- Feeling tired
If symptoms occur with a new infection, they usually appear within 2 to 12 weeks, but can take up to 6 months to develop.
How can I get tested for hepatitis C?
Getting tested is the only way to know if you have hepatitis C. A blood test called a hepatitis C antibody test can tell if you have been infected with the hepatitis C virus—either recently or in the past.
If you have a positive antibody test, another blood test is needed to tell if you are still infected or if you were infected in the past and cleared the virus on your own.
CDC recommends you get tested for hepatitis C if you:
- Are 18 years of age and older
- Are pregnant (get tested during each pregnancy)
- Currently inject drugs (get tested regularly)
- Have ever injected drugs, even if it was just once or many years ago
- Have HIV
- Have abnormal liver tests or liver disease
- Are on hemodialysis
- Received donated blood or organs before July 1992
- Received clotting factor concentrates before 1987
- Have been exposed to blood from a person who has hepatitis C
- Were born to a mother with hepatitis C
How can hepatitis C be prevented?
Although there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, there are ways to reduce the risk of becoming infected.
- Avoid sharing or reusing needles, syringes, or any other equipment used to prepare and inject drugs, steroids, hormones, or other substances
- Do not use personal items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s blood, even in amounts too small to see, such as glucose monitors, razors, nail clippers, or toothbrushes
- Do not get tattoos or body piercings from an unlicensed facility or in an informal setting
Can hepatitis C be cured?
Getting tested for hepatitis C is important to find out if you are infected and get lifesaving treatment. Treatments are available that can cure most people with hepatitis C in 8 to 12 weeks.
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