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Hepatitis C Overview

On This Page: About Hep C | Causes | Stages | Symptoms | Complications | Risk Factors |
Prevention | Is It Curable?

Hepatitis C Overview

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Heavy alcohol use, certain medications, and some medical conditions can all cause hepatitis. In addition to these causes, some forms of hepatitis are caused by viruses. The most common types of hepatitis are hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E. All five of these infections are viral, meaning they’re caused by viruses. Of these, hepatitis B and C are the most common causes of liver scarring (cirrhosis) and liver cancer.1
If you believe you’ve been infected with hepatitis, we highly suggest getting tested so you can begin receiving the treatment you need. Click here to learn more about our hepatitis C test.

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Hepatitis C is a liver infection that is symptomless 80% of the time. When it does present symptoms, they can mimic the flu. About 3.2 million people in the US have Hepatitis C and 3 out of 4 who are infected don’t even know they have it.

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What Is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus, or HCV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the hepatitis C infection can be mild lasting a few weeks, or it can become a chronic, long-term illness causing a multitude of health problems. 2

How Do You Get Hep C?

The virus is mostly transmitted through exposure to infected blood. This can happen through blood transfusions, injecting drugs with unclean needles, receiving tattoos or piercings from unreliable sources, certain invasive beauty trends, and through the exchange of bodily fluids during sex.

Please note that the sexual transmission of HCV is a lot less common than it is for other types of hepatitis. HCV has rarely been found in semen and vaginal fluids. However, when someone carries the virus, their chances of spreading it are higher if they also have an additional STD. 3

Stages of Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C starts out as a mild, acute infection. It can clear up in that stage or it can progress to its chronic stage which can lead to difficult complications.

Acute Stage

During the acute stage of the virus, the infection may cause mild illness symptoms, such as fatigue and vomiting. The acute stage can last up to six months. During this time, a

healthy body may be able to cure itself of the infection. If not, it will progress to chronic hepatitis C.

Chronic Stage

If the body is unable to get rid of the virus within the first six months, HCV will enter into its chronic stage, which can be a long-term and serious infection. 75 – 80% of people who acquire acute hepatitis C will develop a chronic hepatitis C infection.4 At this stage, patients may be eligible for treatment with antiviral medications.

Hepatitis C Symptoms

HCV symptoms tend to appear 2 to 12 weeks after initial exposure to the virus. However, most people who are infected with hepatitis C do not develop any symptoms.5 Even without symptoms it is still possible to transmit hepatitis C.

Acute Hepatitis C Symptoms

Symptoms can be mild or severe. Typically, acute hepatitis C symptoms include:5

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bleeding easily
  • Bruising easily
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Confusion, drowsiness, and/or slurred speech

Chronic Hepatitis C Symptoms

Chronic hepatitis C symptoms resemble acute symptoms, but if there is no intervention, HCV can progress and cause serious complications.

Complications

Chronic forms of hepatitis C can lead to a multitude of devastating complications. These complications include:

  • Severe liver damage
  • Liver cancer
  • Cirrhosis
  • Liver transplant
  • Liver disease
  • Liver failure

Risk Factors

Some behaviors or activities greatly increase the likelihood of contracting HCV. These risk factors include:

  • Receiving a blood transfusion before 1992
  • Injecting drugs
  • Sharing needles
  • Body piercing (especially from unreliable sources)
  • Tattoos (especially from unreliable sources)
  • Engaging in unprotected sex
  • Engaging in sex with multiple partners
  • Healthcare workers
  • Sex workers

In addition to these risk factors, one CDC-funded study found that there was a higher prevalence of HCV among those who had “three or more tattoos, received a tattoo at least once in a nonprofessional setting (e.g., home, party, correctional facility), or received one or more tattoos with reused needles that had not been autoclaved.”6

Prevention

Unlike hepatitis A and hepatitis B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Therefore, the only way to prevent hep C is by taking precautions to avoid transmission.

Here are a few ways to reduce your risk of contracting hepatitis C:

  • Avoid handling other people’s blood
  • Use protective gear when handling other’s bodily fluids
  • Use condoms
  • Wash sex toys before sharing them
  • Before receiving a tattoo or body piercing, ensure the needles and materials are clean
    • You can do this by watching them clean their materials or by watching them open new equipment before beginning your procedure.

Is It Curable?

Hepatitis C is curable. During the acute stage, the body is able to cure itself of the virus. Once hepatitis C enters the chronic stage, there is medication available to help manage and/or treat the virus.

  1. “What is Hepatitis?” World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/features/qa/76/en/
  2. “Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm#A3
  3. “Sexual Transmission of HCV.” Hepatitis C Association. https://www.hepcassoc.org/news/article27.html
  4. “Hepatitis C Questions and Answers for the Public.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/cfaq.htm#D1
  5. “Hepatitis C Overview.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hepatitis-c/symptoms-causes/syc-20354278
  6. “CDC Study on HCV Risk Transmission & Tattoos/Body Piercing, Snorting Drugs.” National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project. http://www.natap.org/2006/HCV/080106_01.htm

Medically Reviewed by on February 13, 2020


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