A guide to hepatitis C: key points to know

Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on February 3, 2020. Written by Caitlin Boyd. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Here’s a helpful guide to hepatitis C so you can easily learn more—including how the virus is transmitted, risk factors, symptoms, testing guidelines, related health complications, and more—so read on.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV), a blood-borne virus. Because this virus can lay dormant in the body, it often goes unnoticed for many years (even decades). But without detection and treatment, hepatitis C can eventually cause liver inflammation, chronic liver disease, and even liver failure—among other serious health complications.


Easily test for hepatitis C from the convenience of home with the at-home Hepatitis C Test.


It’s estimated that over 3 million people in the United States have a chronic (long-term) hepatitis C infection—many of whom are unaware they have it.

You are at a higher risk of hepatitis C if:

  • You have injected drugs
  • You received a blood transfusion before 1992
  • You were born between 1945-1965
  • You are HIV positive

How is hepatitis C transmitted?

Hepatitis C is transmitted when blood that’s infected with the virus enters someone’s bloodstream. This can occur by:

  • Sharing syringes or other drug-injection equipment for intravenous drug use
  • Contaminated blood transfusions
  • Use of non-sterile medical equipment
  • Use of non-sterile piercing or tattoo tools

More rarely, hepatitis C can also spread through:

  • Occupational needlestick injuries
  • Unprotected sex
  • Sharing personal items, like razors
  • Pregnancy and birth (if the mother has hepatitis C)

A pregnant woman with hepatitis C can also transmit the virus to her baby, who might then develop a chronic HCV infection.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Light-colored bowel movements
  • Swelling in abdomen or legs
  • Frequent bleeding and bruising
  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms rarely occur when an HCV infection first begins. Over time, however, an untreated HCV infection can lead to the development of severe health complications (discussed below).

Testing guidelines for hepatitis C

The CDC recommends that, in general, all adults age 18+ get screened for hepatitis C at least once; pregnant women are advised to get tested during every pregnancy.


Easily test for hepatitis C from the convenience of home with the at-home Hepatitis C Test. The test only requires a small sample of blood—collected with a simple finger prick—which you send to a lab for testing using the prepaid label included with the kit.


Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis—a medical term referring to permanent liver damage due to scarring—develops in an estimated 1 in 5 people with a chronic hepatitis C infection. What’s more, hepatitis C is—across the world—the main cause of cirrhosis and chronic liver disease.

Untreated hepatitis C can cause liver damage over several years. As the liver tries to repair itself, scar tissue can form—which interferes with normal liver function. Ultimately, cirrhosis can lead to liver cancer—particularly if the hepatitis C infection is not treated.

Liver cancer

Having hepatitis C increases your lifetime risk for liver cancer. This is especially the case if an HCV infection has already resulted in cirrhosis. Typically, liver cancer develops only after an HCV infection has persisted for 2 or more decades. But if liver cancer does develop, it can put one’s health in serious jeopardy: even with treatment, liver cancer is often fatal—and over 30,000 people die from liver cancer each year in the US

This sobering statistic highlights the importance of testing for hepatitis C: by detecting the infection early, treatment can quickly follow before the infection leads to liver cancer.


Easily test for hepatitis C from the convenience of home with the at-home Hepatitis C Test.


Liver failure

If a hepatitis C infection and its liver-related complications are not treated, the liver may eventually stop working—resulting in liver failure. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver failure, which is a life-threatening medical emergency that requires immediate treatment. In some cases, only a liver transplant can save a patient undergoing liver failure.

Treatment for hepatitis C

In the past decade, rapid progress has been made in the development of specialized drugs to treat hepatitis C infections. In particular, direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) have made it possible to cure HCV infections in an estimated 90% of cases—even among those who have cirrhosis. For many people infected with HCV and who have cirrhosis, curing the infection can help prevent further damage to the liver.

A number of treatment strategies also exist for people who have developed liver cancer as a result of HCV, including surgical removal of the tumor and liver transplantation. Regardless of the treatment method, however, early diagnosis of liver cancer is key because medical intervention may not be effective in the cancer’s advanced stages.

Common questions about hepatitis C

Is hepatitis C sexually transmitted?

Sexual transmission of HCV is uncommon, but it can occur. Fortunately, though, consistently using condoms whenever you have sex can reduce the risk of transmission through intercourse.

Is there a cure for hepatitis C?

In many cases, a hepatitis C infection can be cleared with direct-acting antivirals (DAAs). However, this will not cure any liver-related complications resulting from a chronic infection; treatment for these complications vary depending on the kind of liver complication. Making sure you test for hepatitis C at least once may provide early detection of infection before it causes significant damage to the liver.


Easily test for hepatitis C from the convenience of home with the at-home Hepatitis C Test. The test only requires a small sample of blood—collected with a simple finger prick—which you send to a lab for testing using the prepaid label included with the kit.


References

1. Hepatitis C. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. February 3, 2020.

2. Hepatitis C. Department of Health & Human Services. URL. February 3, 2020.

3. Hepatitis C. Mayo Clinic. URL. February 3, 2020.

4. Managing Occupational Risks for Hepatitis C Transmission in the Health Care Setting. National Center for Biotechnology Information. URL. February 3, 2020.

5. Hepatitis C Virus in Pregnancy and Early Childhood: Current Understanding and Knowledge Deficits. National Center for Biotechnology Information. URL. February 3, 2020.

6. Hepatitis C. National Center for Biotechnology Information. URL. February 3, 2020.

7. CDC Recommendations for Hepatitis C Screening Among Adults — United States, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. February 3, 2020.

8. Cirrhosis in Hepatitis C Virus-Infected Patients: A Review for Practitioners New to Hepatitis C Care. National Center for Biotechnology Information. URL. February 3, 2020.

9. Association Between Hepatitis C and Hepatocellular Carcinoma. National Center for Biotechnology Information. URL. February 3, 2020.

10. Liver Cancer Risk Factors. American Cancer Society. URL. February 3, 2020.

11. Key Statistics About Liver Cancer. American Cancer Society. URL. February 3, 2020.

12. Hepatitis C virus infection and related liver disease: the quest for the best animal model. National Center for Biotechnology Information. URL. February 3, 2020.

13. The Progression of Liver Dissease. American Liver Foundation. URL. February 3, 2020.

14. Hepatitis C-related liver cirrhosis - strategies for the prevention of hepatic decompensation, hepatocarcinogenesis, and mortality. National Center for Biotechnology Information. URL. February 3, 2020.

15. Hepatitis C: How common is sexual transmission? Mayo Clinic. URL. February 3, 2020.

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