Hepatitis C is an infection of the liver. It is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
HCV is carried in the blood of people infected with the virus. It is most often spread through contact with infected blood, such as:
- Injecting illicit drugs with shared needles
- Receiving HCV-infected blood transfusions (before 1992) or blood clotting products (before 1987)
- Receiving an HCV-infected organ transplant
- Receiving long-term kidney dialysis treatment (machine can be tainted with HCV-infected blood)
- 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
- Receiving a tattoo, body piercing, or acupuncture with unsterilized or improperly sterilized equipment
Hepatitis C can also spread through:
- An HCV-infected mother to her baby at the time of birth
- Sexual contact with someone infected with HCV
- Sharing a straw or inhalation tube when inhaling drugs with someone infected by HCV
- Receiving a blood transfusion
HCV cannot spread through:
- The air
- Unbroken skin
- Casual social contact
Factors that increase your chance of this infection:
- Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
- Receiving blood clotting products before 1987
- Long-term kidney dialysis treatment
- Body piercing
- Injecting illicit drugs, especially with shared needles
- Having sex with partners who have hepatitis C or other sexually transmitted diseases
Eighty percent of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms. Over time, the disease can cause serious liver damage.
Symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)
- Darker colored urine
- Light or chalky colored stools
- Loose, light-colored stools
- Abdominal pain
- Aches and pains
- Joint pain
- Cigarette smokers may suddenly dislike the taste of cigarettes
Chronic hepatitis C infection may cause some of the above symptoms, as well as:
- Severe fatigue
- Loss of appetite
Serious complications of hepatitis C infection include:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. You will also discuss your risk factors.
Tests may include:
- Blood tests—to look for hepatitis C antibodies or genetic material from the virus (antibodies are proteins that your body has made to fight the hepatitis C virus)
- Liver function studies— to initially determine and follow how well your liver is functioning
Hepatitis C is usually treated with combined therapy, consisting of :
- Interferon—given by injection
These medications can cause difficult side effects. They also have limited success rates.
In unsuccessful cases, chronic hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis (scarring) and serious liver damage. A liver transplant may be needed.
To prevent becoming infected with hepatitis C:
- Do not inject illicit drugs. Shared needles have highest risk. Seek help to stop using drugs.
To prevent spreading hepatitis C to others if you are infected:
- Tell your dentist and physician before receiving check-ups or treatment.
- Get both a hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccination.
- Do not donate blood or organs for transplant.
American Liver Foundation
Hepatitis Foundation International
Canadian Institute for Health Information
Canadian Liver Foundation
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ .
The Merck Manual of Medical Information . Simon and Schuster, Inc.; 2000.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ .
Last reviewed February 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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