What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a disease caused by the hepatitis C virus that results in infection of the liver. Hepatitis C is the most common (but not the only) cause of post-blood transfusion hepatitis in the United States.
Hepatitis C can be described as ‘acute,’ which means it is a new infection, or it can be considered ‘chronic,’ which means it is a lifelong infection.
- Acute hepatitis C occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C can be a short-term illness, but for most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.
- Chronic hepatitis C can be a lifelong infection with the hepatitis C virus if left untreated. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), liver cancer, and even death.
Who gets hepatitis C?
Anyone can get hepatitis C, but the following people are at high risk of getting the infection:
- People who inject drugs as well as formerly injected drugs
- People who received blood transfusions or organ transplants prior to 1992
- Dialysis patients
- Infants born to mothers who have hepatitis C infected mothers
- People born between 1945 and 1965
How is the virus spread?
Hepatitis C virus is spread by contact with contaminated blood or plasma. Today, most people become infected with the hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment used to prepare or inject drugs (cotton, water, works, etc.). Before 1992, hepatitis C was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. After that, widespread screening of the blood supply in the United States virtually eliminated this source of infection.
More common sources of infection include:
- Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to prepare to inject drugs
- Needle stick injuries in health care settings
- Babies who are born to mothers with hepatitis C infection
The risk of infection from sexual content is believed to be low. The risk increases, however, for people who have multiple sexual partners, have an STD or HIV, or engage in high-risk sexual activity.
Hepatitis C virus is not spread through casual contact or in typical school, office, or food service settings.
It is not spread through the aerosol route, e.g., a person infected with the disease coughing or sneezing.
The virus cannot be acquired by drinking out of a glass used by a person infected with hepatitis C.
How soon do the symptoms appear?
Symptoms of acute hepatitis C may appear within six to nine weeks after exposure. However, they can also occur as soon as two weeks and as much as six months later. People with chronic hepatitis C may not have symptoms for many years.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of acute hepatitis C may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach pain
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored stools
Fewer than 30 percent of those who have the disease will develop acute symptoms of hepatitis C.
Most people infected with the disease will develop chronic infection. This infection may persist for many years without symptoms, before cirrhosis (liver disease) or liver cancer develops.
How long can a person with the disease spread the virus?
People with the disease may spread the virus indefinitely even if they do not experience symptoms.
How is hepatitis C diagnosed?
There are several blood tests that can be done to determine if a person is infected with the hepatitis C virus, including screenings to check for hepatitis C antibodies. These tests cannot determine whether the infection is new (acute) or chronic.
How good is the blood test used by blood donation centers?
The hepatitis C test used by blood donation centers is only a screening test to eliminate hepatitis C virus from the nation’s blood and plasma supply.
People who test positive on the hepatitis C virus antibody test should consult a health care provider and be retested using other types of blood tests.
How can hepatitis C be prevented?
- Syringes, tattooing, and acupuncture needles should not be shared or reused.
- Personal items such as toothbrushes and razors should not be shared.
- People who have multiple sexual partners should use condoms each time they have intercourse.
What is treatment for acute hepatitis C infection?
There are no treatment recommendations for acute hepatitis C; however, patients with acute hepatitis C should be under the care of a health care provider who should monitor them. If the acute hepatitis C infection continues after six months, the health care provider would consider treatment.
What is the treatment for chronic hepatitis C infection?
New medications to treat chronic hepatitis C infection are available. These treatments can make the hepatitis C virus undetectable in patients after about 12 weeks; this can be considered to be cured. More than 90 percent of people with chronic hepatitis C infection can be considered cured of their infection following eight to 12 weeks of treatment.
Where can I find information about hepatitis C clinics and patient resources in Clark County?
Visit the Hepatitis C Patient Clinics and Resources webpage for a directory of services and providers.
Where can I get more information?
Contact your health care provider or the Southern Nevada Health District Office of Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance at (702) 759-1300.
For additional information about hepatitis C, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Hepatitis C Questions for the Public webpage.
Updated on: October 29, 2019